Bullying may be decreasing in US schools

The various efforts used to curb bullying in U.S. schools may be working, a new study suggests.

The study was confined to one large school district in the state of Maryland. But among the students there, bullying in person or online decreased between 2005 and 2014, researchers found.

"It gives us some idea that what we're doing continues to work," said senior author Catherine Bradshaw, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

People should not take the results to mean bullying is no longer a significant concern, she told Reuters Health.

"It continues to be a concern for students who continue to be a part of it," she said.

Writing in the journal Pediatrics, she and her colleagues note that bullying has received a lot of media attention over the past decade - and as a result, many people may believe it's on the rise.

Past research suggests bullying among school-age children is decreasing, they add, but that research was often flawed. For example, some studies did not use a standardized definition of bullying; other studies only analyzed people who were victimized or only elementary, middle or high school students.

For the new study, the researchers analyzed survey responses collected between 2005 and 2014 from 246,306 fourth- through 12th-graders at 109 schools in Maryland.

The survey defined bullying the same way the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta does. The definition includes "actions like threatening, teasing, name-calling, ignoring, rumor-spreading, sending hurtful emails and text messages, and leaving someone out on purpose."

Among other questions, the survey asked students if they'd been bullied or if they had bullied someone else at least twice in the last month.

Rates of bullying ranged from about 13 percent to about 29 percent. Rates of being a bully ranged from 7 percent to about 21 percent.

Over the 10-year study period, being bullied, being a bully and witnessing bullying became less common. There were also decreases in the rates of student reports of being pushed, threatened, cyberbullied and having rumors spread about them.

Rates of students reporting feeling safe at school increased over the 10 years, too.

"In the more recent years, that's where we've seen a steeper decline in the data," said Bradshaw.

While the study can't say why bullying rates decreased over the decade or why the decrease was steeper in recent years, the researchers suggest it may be due to increasing number of anti-bullying policies and an increase in evidence-based anti-bullying policies.

All states now have laws that address bullying, the researchers write.

The most successful anti-bullying programs are typically science based, intensive, involve the whole school and engage students, teachers and parents, according to Stephen Leff and Dr. Chris Feudtner, of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

"These programs often try to build skills in youth problem-solving abilities, empathy, perspective-taking, and how to be a positive bystander," Leff and Feudtner write in an editorial accompanying the new study.

They add that the new data is encouraging, but "we need to sustain our focus to continue the decrease of bullying and victimization in schools across the nation."

Bradshaw said the nation's foot must be kept on the gas in order to make progress on decreasing rates of bullying.

"We wan to build momentum and not lose any traction," she said.