It is hard to believe it is October again, our designated “bullying prevention month.” Typically at this time of year my inbox is full of requests for interviews or information on bullying and my Google newsfeed alerts ping hundreds of articles about the issue. Though these are still trickling in, somehow this year seems much slower than any in the past five. Perhaps it was the recent news that rates of bullying are down for students ages 12-18, or the fact that every state in the country now has an anti-bullying law (which, at least according to one recently released study, seem to have a positive relation to decreased rates of bullying). Whatever the reason, it seems like the once-widespread focus on bullying among school-aged youth seems to be fading.
In their pioneering book Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban write that policymakers’ attention to a topic often follows public interest, for better and worse; tragedies or news stories can increase the likelihood of real action, but those chances wane when public attention fades. We have seen this already with bullying. The first panic about bullying followed a string of school shootings in the 1990s, reaching its peak with the Columbine massacre in 1999. But attention to bullying dwindled until the next panic involving youth suicides in 2010.
Despite the public’s seemingly short attention span, however, dedicated researchers, advocates, and policymakers took up the cause driving towards the progress we have seen to date. This relatively quiet bullying prevention month is the perfect time to reflect on our progress and plan for the next policy cycle, which will hopefully not be triggered by a tragic event like those in the past.
The last five years have been a firestorm for work on bullying. A simple Google Scholar search reveals over 9,000 publications since 2010 with “bullying” in their title. Everyone, from President Obama to Lady Gaga to Big Bird to Monica Lewinsky, has spoken up about bullying. Anti-bullying wristbands and posters are so commonplace now, it is almost more surprising to walk into a school and not see these types of campaigns. Bullying as an issue is so recognized now that it has lost much of the meaning that was once ascribed to it. As danah boyd has long argued, the term bullying often doesn’t resonate with today’s youth. Today, everything is bullying and yet nothing is bullying (and it doesn’t help that those of us who work on the issue can’t agree what it is, either). It comes as no surprise then that, after five years, there is a general malaise in the discussion.
But perhaps this is exactly where the conversation needs to be. As I have long argued, simply telling youth not to bully and raising awareness about the issue is unlikely to actually change the behavior. Instead the conversation now seems to have shifted to one that could have a real impact: building social and emotional skills in youth, addressing trauma, creating more positive school climates, and focusing on positive behaviors, rather than negative ones. By focusing on these protective factors, at increasingly earlier ages, we are more likely to impact bullying than awareness campaigns like bullying prevention month.
So as this bullying prevention month quietly continues, don’t despair that attention has been lost. Instead look towards the promise of the new policy cycles, new research, and new prevention efforts that might have the biggest impact of all.
Deborah Temkin, Program Area Director for Education