The long-feared, lunch-money-stealing schoolyard bully may soon be a thing of the past, a new analysis suggests.
The analysis stems from an ongoing survey conducted from 2005 to 2014 that found bullying has been on a decade-long downswing.
Overall, almost 250,000 students, attending 109 different elementary, middle and high schools across the state of Maryland were asked to share their experiences about bullying. The children and teens were asked about bullying in various forms -- including physical, verbal and cyber abuse.
"We found that bullying and related behaviors were decreasing, which indicated improvements in student behaviors and school climate," said study lead author Tracy Evian Waasdorp. She's with the department of mental health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Exactly why youthful bullying seems to be on the wane is "difficult to determine," Waasdorp admitted. Still, she suggested that "it is possible that policy changes, as well as increased attention to and awareness of bullying nationally, are factors that likely contributed to these improvements over time."
Waasdorp and her colleagues published their findings online May 1 in the journal Pediatrics.
The goal, the researchers said, was to assess if students had been victims of frequent bullying over the month leading up to any particular survey.
Similar numbers of boys and girls participated in the study. White students made up 60 percent of the survey group, followed by black students, who made up about 18 percent of the participants. Nine percent were Native American, about 7 percent were Hispanic and 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander.
Physical bullying included being pushed or slapped; verbal bullying included being threatened; and cyber-bullying involved being teased, embarrassed or shamed by email or on social media blogs. So-called "relational bullying" -- meaning the spreading of rumors -- was also tracked.
Overall, at varying times over the decade, the surveys revealed that between 13 percent and 29 percent of students said they had been bullied in some way during the prior month. And roughly half of the students said that they had witnessed bullying at some point.
But the research team observed that by nearly all measures, bullying rates "significantly decreased" over the course of the 10-year survey period.
The researchers reported that physical, verbal and rumor-spreading bullying fell about 2 percent every year, dropping -- on all fronts -- to below 10 percent by the last year of surveying.
The investigators also observed a 1 percent to 2 percent drop per year in the rate by which students instigated bullying themselves. That rate also dipped below 10 percent in the last few years of the surveys.
In addition, over time, fewer students indicated that they had witnessed bullying -- from 66 percent to 43 percent over the decade. Roughly 80 percent of students said they felt safe while at school, and that figure also followed an upward trajectory over time.
The surveys did not see any statistically significant improvement in the perception among students that adults were taking a more proactive stance to stop bullying in schools.
"The good news here is that some of the national attention to this important public health issue appears to be having a positive impact," said Waasdorp.
Nevertheless, "a large proportion of students are still victims or witnesses to bullying," she added.
"We need to continue to monitor bullying to ensure that these decreasing trends do not plateau or take a turn for the worse," Waasdorp concluded.
Stephen Leff is co-author of an accompanying journal editorial and co-director of the Violence Prevention Initiative at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
He said that "the [bullying] rates are not falling quickly enough."
According to Leff, "While rates of all types of bullying are declining, the study did not look at impact. For instance, while cyber-bullying rates were quite low, a single incident can have a devastating impact on victims and schools, because can it be observed by so many students over and over."
But the good news, said Leff, is that "schools and bullying experts know more today about what really works to reduce bullying behaviors, and schools have become better consumers."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about how to stop bullying.
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