Why school bullying prevention programs that involve peers may be harmful to victims


Staff member

School bullying has been identified as harmful to students' mental health. A number of studies have evaluated the efficacy of bullying prevention programs, finding mixed effects generally and no benefits overall for secondary school students. Looking at the specific elements of bullying prevention programs helps to explain the complicated pattern: Unlike intensive programs that have parent training, firm disciplinary methods or enhanced playground supervision, interventions which involve use of peers often lead to gains in bullying. A brand new review explores why encouraging peers to shield victims may actually cause more damage than good.

The analysis was prepared by a researcher at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the University of Queensland, Brisbane. It appears in Child Development Perspectives, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

"Many school bullying prevention programs encourage and train peer bystanders (helpers) to get actively involved in assisting with possible instances of bullying," said Karyn L. Healy, research officer from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, who authored the analysis. "Although this approach is very common and well-intentioned, there is no evidence that it helps victims. Encouraging peers to actively defend victims of bullying may actually produce adverse outcomes for victims."

Most research about the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs assumes that every program impacts bullying and victimization in a simple and unified manner. But a lot of programs combine a range of different strategies and participants, which are very likely to produce differential effects.

Healy identified a number of mechanisms through which bystander Interventions that involve peer defense of the sufferer may boost victimization and suffering of victims: 1) by disempowering victims, 2) by reinforcing or provoking bullying, or 3) by eroding wider support for victims by the peer group.

"Having lots of peers involved makes the situation more public, which can be damaging to the social reputation of victims," said Healy. "Having a trained bystander step in also prevents the victim from handling a situation themselves and may make them look weak in the eyes of the bully. Training students to intervene in bullying also has the potential of leading to overuse of peer defense strategies because of benefits to helpers, such as making helpers feel they have higher status or increasing helpers' feelings of belonging in school."

Recent evidence indicates that even when programs are successful In decreasing bullying, they may nonetheless be bad for the individual pupils that are victimized the most. "This could potentially be the case for any program that aims to reduce overall bullying without taking into account the impacts on victims," explains Healy.

To lessen the risk to vulnerable students, Healy suggests that schools be wary of bullying prevention programs that lack evidence of effectiveness for reducing bullying and victimization. Schools should avoid using strategies that boost peer visibility of victimization (e.g., identifying a victim in a class meeting). In addition, evaluations of bullying prevention programs that look at the school as a whole should be cautious of hidden negative outcomes for individual students who remain victimized.

Related Journal Article: https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cdep.12385