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Can Youth Bullying Ever Be Eradicated?

Dr. Dorothy Espelage (University of Florida) presented a comprehensive account of her research into youth bullying spanning more than two decades in an invited paper ‘Prevention & Intervention of Youth Bullying and other Forms of Youth Aggression: Research Informed Strategies’ at the XX April International Academic Conference.

The issue of youth bullying as a field of scientific inquiry is still very much in its embryonic stages in Russia. But that doesn’t mean that it is not an important problem. ‘In February of 2019,’ says Professor Espelage, ‘the Russian press reported that 1 out of every 4 Russian students has been bullied. This is a phenomenon that is happening here in Russia. But you’re not alone. It’s happening all over the world.’

The professor began her work on the topic in 1993, when there was a total of only 5 articles about it. Now, in 2019, there are 1,000 articles on the topic in the US, and 3,000 articles worldwide.

After decades of research, the main thing she has learned, Professor Espelage says, is that there is no simple solution. ‘It is very difficult to prevent bullying in most countries around the world. Some countries do better than others. For example, Finland has been very successful. The United States, Canada, and Australia have failed in many, many ways.’

The problem definitely needs to be tackled. ‘We do know from meta-analysis that kids that are victims of bullying have high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation. In fact, in many of our countries, adolescent suicide is an epidemic.’

Tricky Aspects of the Problem

Bullying does not happen in a vacuum. Research has shown that bullying is a precursor to other forms of violence—particularly gender-based violence. ‘This topic is always quite sensitive. But you should know that we’ve shown in longitudinal rigorous studies, that as kids engage in high rates in bullying toward their peers, years later, they also engage in sexual violence.’

One component of that sexual violence is homophobic name calling. Discovered in the UK 30 years ago, homophobic name calling has only gained momentum as a topic of study over the last 10 years. Studies have shown its connection with sexual violence later in life. However, given the difficulty of the topic to scientifically study, ‘this may not be where you want to start with your research agenda,’ she says.

Another complex aspect of youth bullying is home violence. ‘We do find that family conflict, sibling aggression and domestic violence in the home is associated with engaging in high rates of bullying,’ says Professor Espelage. ‘So we have to think about the parental component—again, very challenging. There are only 200 papers written on family violence and bullying. It’s a challenging starting point because families don’t necessarily want to talk about what’s happening in the home.’

Research has also shown that violence and sexual harassment leads to adolescent relationship aggression or teen dating violence. ‘We just started studying this in the United States. This developmental model means that if you’re just focusing on bullying and not understanding that it evolves into different forms of aggression, then you have limited success in reducing violence across the lifespan. I think the best way to think about prevention of bullying and promoting of student wellbeing is to think about this complexity.’

Prevention: The Social-Ecological Perspective

‘When we think about prevention, we have to think about all the layers that surround our children,’ Professor Espelage says. Since not all children react to bullying in the same way, it does not work when adults tell every child to manage bullying in the same way. Personalities and environments vary. Researchers therefore need to take a social-ecological perspective and consider all the ‘layers’ surrounding a child


There’s a saying: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We find that to be true. Sometimes, if you work in a school and a child is identified as a bully, then you meet the child’s dad or mom, you have that thought, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” That child in some ways has learned that that’s how they behave with their peers. That doesn’t make them a bad child; it’s just what they know.

Peers and Schools

We also have found support for what’s known as the homophily hypothesis ‘This idea is that if I hang out with kids that bully, if I hang out with kids that engage in sexual violence, I will engage in bullying. We also find that if I hang out with kids that talk nice to their parents and do their homework, I will do the same.’ This dimension of a child’s social environment is important because bullies are often well-liked. In our recent work, we try to enlist these kids to help us in our prevention programming.


Though it is not a panacea, when communities enact laws, it helps. In 1993, in 50 states in America, 1 state had a law against bullying. In 2019, every state in the US has a law against bullying. America is a diverse country just like Russia, so in some parts of the country it’s more conservative, and bullies go really unnoticed. In other parts of the country, kids feel really safe from bullying. It depends on the policy and the procedure. Without laws, you will not be able to prevent bullying. However, simply having a law will not prevent bullying alone. It also depends on the community.


There have been lots of cross-national comparisons across countries. In the US the bullying rates have increased in the last 2 years. Even a factor such as national discourse matters. The kids in schools emulate what they see happening in politics. That is something to think about.

Punishments and Mediation Do Not Work

Amongst the many dimensions for research and possible avenues for prevention and intervention, Professor Espelage distilled two particular approaches that do not work. The first unsuccessful approach she described was punitive discipline. Worldwide studies show if you want to reduce victimization by 20% you need disciplinary methods that are non-punitive, meaning that you’re not kicking the bullies out of school. Instead, parents need to be educated about bullying and kids need to learn cooperative group work.

Another unsuccessful approach is mediation. Meta-analysis actually found that you should NOT mediate bullying. Do not put a bully and a victim in a room together. Remember the power differential. What they found is when you do that, the bullying gets worse. If they’re friends that are having a conflict, then that’s OK. But no one wants to sit across from their tormentor.

Social and Emotional Learning Programming

One tactic that has been proven to reduce bullying is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programming. Professor Espelage has helped implement SEL in Australia, Israel, Korea, Japan, and other countries. Developed in 1994, SEL programmes, which focus on developing social skills, have been shown to prevent bullying, promote academic functioning, and support student wellbeing.

SEL focuses on five different domains:

  • self-awareness (the ability to accurately recognize your own emotions and thoughts);
  • social awareness (understanding how your behavior, perspective-taking, and empathy affects others);
  • self-management (the ability to regulate yourself and resolve or prevent conflicts);
  • relationship skills (the ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships);
  • responsible decision-making (the ability to make constructive choices based on ethical standards).

Originally intended to improve children’s social skills (and not reduce bullying specifically), Professor Espelage identifies SEL as a useful starting point. ‘As you push forward in understanding bullying, and if there’s pushback, SEL may be the way to talk about bullying prevention.’

Some will argue across the world that SEL is soft, non-cognitive, but people need relationship skills. Many of us are successful in our work and our lives because we can maintain healthy relationships. Meta analysis revealed that in 82 school-based studies, there were longitudinal positive effects. When kids are exposed to SEL, whether that’s a classroom curriculum, an after-school programme, an arts programme, or a music programme, there is a greater positive youth development, including prosocial behavior.

It was found that exposure to SEL has long-term impact and is predictive of adult outcomes—of physical health, crime, less substance use. Kids with great SEL skills years later have better employment, less criminal activity, less substance use, and less mental health challenges

When introducing SEL programming in schools, teachers (not psychologists) should implement it. ‘We do this because many of our teachers lack SEL skills,’ says Professor Espelage. ‘So they learn to improve their SEL competencies as well.’

In order to measure the success of SEL programming, Professor Espelage and researchers conducted a 6-year study. They found that, within 3 years, physical aggression, bullying, cyber bullying, homophobic name calling, and sexual harassment were all reduced in children aged 10-12 years who studied at schools that implemented the programme.

We had the best reductions when teachers implemented the program with fidelity, meaning they implemented the program as it was intended to be implemented

Professor Espelage warns, however, that some teachers will be reluctant to take this on, and their way of being reluctant is to not teach all of the lessons. Therefore, it is important to provide support for teachers.

She also notes that this is only a beginning of a long process. ‘3,000 articles later, we still have a lot of work to do. There have been some successes; we will probably never eradicate bullying (not in my lifetime), but I’m hopeful that we can reduce it by more than 20% in the coming years. And I am hopeful that when I come back to Russia, there will be a lot more studies.’

Professor Espelage is a professor of psychology at the University of Florida (USA) where she researches bullying, homophobic teasing, sexual harassment, dating violence, and gang violence. She has authored over 190 peer-reviewed articles, six edited books, and 70 chapters on these topics over the last 22 years. Her research focuses on translating empirical findings into prevention and intervention programming: she advises members of Congress and Senate on bully prevention legislation; she conducts regular webinars for US government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to disseminate research; and she has been a consultant on the stopbullying.gov website.

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