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Creative solutions are needed to bring effective bullying prevention to more youth

By | December 17, 2012

Lately, it seems that barely a week can go by without a terrible case of bullying showing up in newspaper headlines.  Bullying is not a new problem, and research shows that youth bullying behavior has actually decreased over the last couple of decades. Nonetheless, public awareness of bullying seems to be at an all-time high, perhaps because we better understand how much it can negatively affect children. Increased awareness is certainly a good thing, but how do we make sure it translates into effective prevention programs and strategies delivered to the youth who need it most?

Many people are looking to schools for help, and there are great examples of comprehensive bullying prevention efforts in schools—improvements to policy, staff training and youth prevention education, increased reporting options, and student surveys to monitor the effects of those improvements.  These efforts can make a difference for children, but to work, they have to be implemented fully and consistently.

Unfortunately, for many schools, the ideal combination of multi-level prevention strategies is difficult to put into place and maintain.  The best prevention programs require significant resources and an ongoing commitment to persist with the program through funding and organizational upheavals.  However, bullying is just one problem that affects youth safety, well-being, and academic success, and schools are overwhelmed by the many concerns they are expected to address.  Drastic budget reductions have affected social programs and schools with the biggest bullying and peer violence problems are often the ones with the most significant challenges in other areas as well.

In the face of pressure to “do something,” stressed school systems may resort to quick fixes that have no evidence they make a difference in the long-term: one-shot, assembly-style programs; increased security devices; “easy” awareness raising activities such as student poster competitions; and, prevention programs that are adopted but not really implemented. The result is that few youth, and few at-risk youth in particular, will get the chance to benefit from the kinds of evidence-based bullying and peer violence prevention that we know can make a difference.

How do we increase the delivery of prevention that works?

Pressure on schools to implement better bullying prevention is likely to continue. But schools also need our help.  Program developers, policy makers, researchers, and funding entities are going to have to find ways to make it easier for schools to implement bullying prevention, and increase program effectiveness, without increasing the burden on schools.

New technology is a tool that may hold promise for finding creative solutions to some of the implementation problems—or at least enhancing the efforts that schools are making.  Computer technology has already started changing how prevention is being delivered in other areas. For instance, computer programs are being used to deliver individualized education to pregnant women who are at risk for drug use; the medical field is using computer games for HIV prevention education and to improve diabetes treatment compliance; and, text messaging is being used to deliver smoking prevention messages with successful impact.

Some possibilities for using new technology to improve bullying prevention include:

1.      Supplementing classroom programs with additional learning opportunities.  While classroom-based programs are ideal because youth get to practice new skills with their peers and teachers, learning can be enhanced if messages are repeated across different settings.  New technology could deliver reinforcing messages along with the classroom learning in creative ways, such as through text messages, apps, or social media. This could be particularly useful for middle and high schools, where students move from class to class and traditional classroom programs are more difficult to implement.

2.      Improved teacher training.  Teacher and staff training are critical elements of most bullying prevention programs, but difficult to maintain. Typically, there are only a limited number of days per year dedicated to staff in-service learning.  New technology provides opportunities to re-think how training can be delivered to teachers in more efficient ways.

3.      Improved parent training.  Finding ways to educate parents has always been difficult for prevention programmers. New technologies may be more successful at reaching parents with in-home training programs and tools that increase education outreach efforts.

As a Stoneleigh Fellow, I am working with the Committee for Children in Seattle, Washington, developers of the evidence-based bullying prevention program Steps to Respect and the social-emotional learning program Second Step, to select one of the options above for an initial pilot development and testing project.  We will be collaborating with partners in the peer violence field and the technology industry to advance this work. We will test feasibility and initial outcomes with a demonstration site in Philadelphia.

There is an important caveat to the promises of new technology:  Many anti-bullying computer “games” and web-based programs are likely to show up on the market in response to current public anxiety about the problem.  But such products will be unlikely to make much of a difference by themselves. For them to be effective, they must be part of an integrated whole-school prevention initiative and accompanied by research at each step.  When new products are marketed to them, schools and communities need to be vigilant about asking for the evidence that they work.

The field of peer violence and bullying prevention has come a long way. We are learning more and more about the approaches that seem to be most effective.  Now we need more focus on improving implementation options as well.  New technology won’t provide any easy answers, but if society is creative enough to develop smart phones and social media websites, then it is creative enough to find ways to provide high-quality prevention efforts that keep youth safe.