April 21, 2011 -- Bullying is pervasive among middle school and high school students in Massachusetts and may be linked to family violence, according to a new report in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
Overall, 43.9% of middle school students and 30.5% of high school students in Massachusetts were involved in or affected by bullying in 2009. Specifically, 26.8% of middle school students said they were bullied, 7.5% said they were bullies, and 9.6% said they were “bully-victims,” meaning they had been bullies and bullied during 2009.
Among high school students, 15.6% reported being victims of bullying, 8.4% acknowledged they were bullies, and 6.5% said they were bully-victims in 2009.
Bullies, victims of bullying, and bully-victims were more likely to be exposed to violence at home, the study showed. In addition, kids who are involved in bullying are also more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and are at higher risk for depression and/or suicide.
“Bullying is extremely prevalent and it is a public health problem because of its prevalence. And it doesn’t happen in isolation,” says study researcher Marci Hertz, a lead health scientist at the CDC in Atlanta. “Victims, perpetrators, or both are at increased risk for engaging in other sorts of behaviors.”
The 2009 Massachusetts Youth Health Survey asked participants two questions about bullying:
- How many times in the past year had they been bullied at school, including teased, threatened, hit, kicked or excluded by another kid or group of students.
- Did the students bully or push someone around or start a physical fight in the past year.
While the new study provides a snapshot of bullying in Massachusetts, the findings are likely applicable to other states, Hertz says.
Females were more likely to be victims of bullying in high school and middle school than males, but males were more likely to do the bullying, the study showed. Previous reports have shown that males were more likely to be both bullies and victims.
“This study is one of the first that examines the relationship between bullying and family violence,” she says. “Kids who are involved in bullying are also involved in substance abuse and have a family history of violence. Programs that are comprehensive and involve families and communities working in partnership with schools are needed to stop bullying.”
Red Flags for Bullying
Parents who are concerned that their child is a bully, being bullied, or both needs to get involved, Hertz says. “Talk to their school if there are changes in behavior or academic achievement or if a previously outgoing child has become withdrawn and is not wanting to go places.”
Bullying can also take place via text messaging, Facebook, and on other web sites. “Ask where your kids go online the same way that you ask where they are going when they leave the house,” she says.
Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach agrees. “Bullying is a prevalent problem in schools and in the lives of young people and it can have dire consequences,” he says via email. “For these reasons, it is important to prevent bullying before it starts, rather than merely developing responses when it occurs."
Going forward, he says, “Changing social climate in schools and supporting young people in developing healthy relationships with adults and peers are the best ways to prevent bullying.”
Auerbach says that youth who have more social support from adults and peers are less likely to experience severe negative consequences from bullying. “So, when bullying does occur, it is very important that parents take it seriously and take a role in working with the child’s school to find a solution,” he says. “Parents can talk with their children about the bullying, express empathy, and never suggest that the bullying is the victim’s fault.”
“Bullying now follows kids to their home, and we are starting to hear more stories about kids hurting themselves or others to get out of the bullying,” says Jennifer Newman, PhD, a staff psychologist in the division of trauma psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Manhasset, N.Y. Newman’s hospital offers free counseling to children who are affected by bullying.
Prevention of bullying starts at home. “Parents have to be really aware of what is going on with children and talk openly about bullying and be in contact with their school and teachers and work together as a team,” she says. “Schools are rolling out programs to stop bullying, but they are finding that these programs may not be as effective if they don’t include families.”
“This is an interesting and helpful study which provides detailed state-specific data on the incidence and consequences of bullying,” says David Fassler, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington.
“Consistent with previous reports, the findings indicate that bullying is a common experience for many children and adolescents,” he says in an email.
“The results also demonstrate that bullying is associated with numerous significant risk factors including suicidal thoughts and attempts, witnessing violence, and being physically hurt by a family member,” he says. "The study underscores the importance of early identification and comprehensive intervention for both bullies and their victims.”