We need to change the way we talk about bullying, experts say

A new report suggests that bullying should be treated as a 'serious public health problem.'

Mark Bugnaski/The Kalamazoo Gazette/AP
A student in Michigan boards a bus on the first day of school. Bullying is a 'serious public health problem,' and should no longer be dismissed as merely a matter of kids being kids, a leading panel of experts warned Tuesday.

Bullying is no longer just kids being kids, say experts.

A new report from a panel of childhood behavior experts has classified bullying as a "serious public health problem."

For many children, bullying begins as early as preschool and peaks around middle school. But far from just being a traditional part of growing up, the report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineerings, and Medicine finds the process of bullying exposes children to long term negative effects.

"Its prevalence perpetuates its normalization. But bullying is not a normal part of childhood," the National Academies said in the report.

What's more, as bullying moves from schoolyards to social media platforms, it is increasingly different than the bullying other generations might have encountered.

Parents and educators have become cognizant of the presence of bullying online and in social media platforms, but ideas for how to combat the problem have been difficult to find and even more challenging to assess.

"This is a pivotal time for bullying prevention, and while there is not a quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution, the evidence clearly supports preventive and interventional policy and practice," Frederic Rivara, chairman of the committee that wrote the report and a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington, told the Associated Press.

Certain policies currently enacted to combat the rise of bullying could be hurting the cause, the researchers found. Zero-tolerance policies, in particular, don’t help reduce bullying and the strict punishments, suspension in most cases, may result in underreporting as teachers and other officials view it as too extreme, they say.

Instead, the researchers suggest schools should adopt preventative intervention policies. The most efficient preventative policies are still being studied.

Many schools across the nation are turning to more student-led campaigns to lower bullying. Hillsboro School District in Oregon has adopted anti-bullying policies that encourage students to intervene for each other and discourage bullying, as Cristina Maza reported for The Christian Science Monitor last year.

"We knew based off of research that this had to be a student-led effort. The days of having schools initiate things without the buy-in of the students are over. We had to capture the students’ voice," Casey Waletich, director of safety and operations at the Oregon school district, told the Monitor.

Nationwide, bullying has decreased rapidly from a decade ago, according to a May report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The percentage of public schools reporting bullying incidents once a week decreased from 29 percent in 1999 to 16 percent in 2014.

The report from the National Academies has more cautionary figures, detailing that bullying affects 18 to 31 percent of children. Cyberbully ranged from seven to 15 percent.

"When we think about bullying, it impacts education, it can cause school avoidance, loss of concentration, absenteeism," in addition to physical and mental health, Julie Herzog, director of the National Bullying Prevention Center at the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER), told the Monitor.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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