School Bullying Has Decreased During the COVID-19 Pandemic, but Schools Should Prepare for Its Return

BlogHealthy SchoolsOct 27 2021

Remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted many facets of students’ school experiences. Although many parents, educators, and other stakeholders have sounded the alarm on the potential negative learning and mental health outcomes, the shift to virtual schooling may have also benefited some students—particularly those who have experienced bullying by their peers. Nationally representative data for 2020 and 2021 are not yet available, but several smaller data collections suggest that bullying significantly decreased during the pandemic. As students return to in-person schooling, school leaders must take active steps to prevent a resurgence of bullying behaviors.

Recent data from the Cyberbullying Research Center show that, in 2021, 23 percent of 13- to 17-year-old students reported experiencing bullying and 7 percent reported bullying others. These rates represent a significant decrease from 2019, when 51 percent reported experiencing bullying and 12 percent reported bullying others. Additionally, by studying trends in Google search data, a team of Boston University researchers found that searches for bullying and cyberbullying dropped approximately 30 to 40 percent in Spring 2020—the time of the transition to remote learning. Notably, as American schools have returned to in-person learning, bullying search trends are returning to their pre-pandemic levels.

These studies parallel other data collected by Child Trends, in partnership with the DC Office of Human Rights, which oversees implementation of Washington, DC’s bullying prevention law. For school year 2020-2021, DC schools recorded just one-tenth the number of reports of bullying as the year prior (152 in 2020-2021 vs. 1,344 in 2019-2020). Some respondents to the data collection noted that their relative inability to track bullying during remote learning might explain some of the reductions, while others observed that the virtual classroom limited the amount of unsupervised interaction between students.

Moreover, cyberbullying has not dramatically risen, despite the decrease in in-person school bullying. The Cyberbullying Research Center found that 42 percent of 13- to 17-year-old students reported experiencing less cyberbullying during the pandemic than before. Still, the same report found that the number of students who reported being cyberbullied increased slightly, from 17 percent in 2019 to 23 percent in 2021. Based on these data, the researchers infer that cyberbullying did not significantly change during the pandemic, and that the observed decrease in school bullying did not translate to a significant increase in cyberbullying.

While virtual learning may have protected many students from bullying, the return to in-person schooling could place many students at risk. Indeed, even before the pandemic, parents were opting for virtual learning to help protect students from bullying at school. The significant reductions in bullying during the pandemic may lead more parents to choose virtual schools even after the return to in-person schooling.

Given these concerns, schools must reenergize their commitment to creating safe and supportive environments that help prevent bullying. Revisiting pre-pandemic anti-bullying initiatives and trainings could help teachers remember common signs of bullying. Additionally, as schools more broadly focus on students’ mental well-being, they should apply a similar focus on adopting a trauma-informed approach to addressing bullying. Specifically, schools should help students who feel as though they have been bullied restore their sense of safety at school, and should provide support to students who engage in bullying behavior rather than use exclusionary or other forms of harsh discipline. In so doing, schools can help retain some of the gains we have seen in rates of bullying during the pandemic.