You are here

Rigby, K., & Smith, P. K. (2011). Is school bullying really on the rise? Social Psychology of Education, 14, 441–455.

Although there have been some variations in the way bullying has been defined, a general consensus has emerged in which it is seen as a form of aggressive behavior in which there is an imbalance of power favoring the perpetrator(s) who repeatedly seek to hurt or intimidate a targeted individual. Some studies have focused upon the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs in reducing school bullying (Rigby & Slee 2008; Merrell et al. 2008; Farrington & Ttofi 2009). These studies have suggested that some programs have been effective in reducing the prevalence of bullying. Farrington and Ttofi (2009) identified 17 out of 44 programs as significantly reducing peer victimization among school children. They concluded that on average anti-bullying programs reduce bullying by approximately 20%. With the development and increased accessibility of electronic technology, the opportunities for peer victimization have greatly increased. The term ‘cyberbullying’ has been defined as bullying using electronic means of contact (Smith et al. 2008).

Method: This study examined evidence regarding changes over time in the prevalence of bullying from data published from the 1990s up to 2009.They reported first on research undertaken in specific countries in which relevant repeated surveys have been undertaken. Subsequently they examined the findings provided for a collection of 27 countries from Europe and North America as reported by Molcho et al. (2009). Finally, they examined findings from two studies that focused specifically on trends in the prevalence of cyberbullying.

Results: Finkelhor et al. (2009) examined data from two similar national surveys conducted five years apart, in 2003 and 2008. Both surveys provided information through randomized telephone interviews relating to abusive behavior experienced by children between the ages of 2 and 17 years. Caregivers answered questions about children under the age of 11 years; older children were interviewed directly. For the 2003 survey, data were obtained for 2,030 children; for the 2008 survey from 4,046 children. Indices of abusive behavior were derived from interview reports of physical assaults, sexual assaults and peer and sibling victimization, classified as either physical or emotional. Overall, the authors reported a reduction in abusive behavior experienced by children between 2003 and 2008.With respect to bullying, they noted a ‘large drop’ in physical bullying, from 21.7% reporting having been physically attacked by a peer or sibling to 14.8%. Emotional bullying also decreased significantly, but less steeply. On changes in rates of bullying, they suggest that changes have come about as a result of very notable increases in attention being applied to bullying in school anti-bullying policies and initiatives.
The international data set was based on multiple surveys conducted in 27 countries in Western and Eastern Europe and North America (Molcho et al. 2009). Data were collected from students aged 11–15 years between 1993/94 and 2005/06 at 4 year intervals. Students were asked to indicate how often they had been bullied during ‘this term’. Victimization was defined as ‘chronic’ if it was reported as occurring more than twice during the term and ‘occasional’ if occurring ‘once or more’ compared with ‘never’. Among boys, for the 27 country samples significant decreases in occasional and chronic victimization were reported in 19 countries. Among girls, significant decreases were reported in occasional victimization in 13 countries and chronic victimization in 18 countries. 19 countries reported a decrease in occasional victimization and 21 in chronic victimization. The prevalence of chronic bullying showed a decline on average from 19.3% in 1993/1994 to 10.6% in 2005/2006, a reduction of 45%.
Wolke et al. (2006) reported data from the first and second Youth Internet Safety Surveys (YISS-1 and YISS-2), each with N = 1,500. YISS-1 was conducted in 1999–2000, and YISS-2 in 2005. Both were telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of U.S. internet users, aged 10–17 years. Cyberbullying was defined as ‘threats or other offensive behavior sent online to the youth or posted online about the youth for others to see’. The comparison of the two surveys showed an increase in reports of harassment from 6 to 9%, and of distressing harassment from 2 to 3%. The proportions who said that they had ‘made rude or nasty comments to someone on the Internet’ doubled, from 14 to 28%, and ‘used the Internet to harass or embarrass someone they were mad at’ jumped from 1 to 9%.

Discussion: In a large majority of cases the data suggest that the prevalence of bullying did not increase. In the international data set of 27 countries, only 3 showed a significant increase in occasional victimization and only one in chronic victimization. 19 of the 27 reported cases showed a significant decrease in occasional victimization and 21 in chronic victimization. The study on cyberbullying suggests that there were some increases in the prevalence of cyberbullying during the period 1999–2006.