Six things we have learned from youth about bullying prevention

Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, co-directors: Youth Voice Project

Almost twenty years since the beginnings of science-based bullying prevention, it is clear to us that school wide bullying prevention efforts got some fundamental things right. It also has become clear to us, as we listen to youth through the Youth Voice Project research and in school level surveys and discussions, that we should consider rethinking some of our early ideas. Here is what we have learned from youth:

    1. This work is important. Children and teens have described a wide range of types of mistreatment by peers. Some (but not all) mistreated youth have described profound impacts the mistreatment has had on their lives. If our data–taken from 13000+ youth in 31 schools–is representative of students throughout the US, one fourth of American youth have experienced repeated mistreatment, and one eighth–half of those mistreated–report significant emotional trauma. The US has about 50,000,000 students in school, so these percentages would represent approximately 12 million mistreated youth and 6 million traumatized youth. The bullying prevention community has done a good job of communicating that importance. We propose rethinking the idea that “awareness campaigns” or other actions which solely try to tell youth that bullying is wrong are needed at this point. Youth have received this message already.


    1. Early in this work, Olweus, Sharpe and Smith, Ross, Craig and Pepler, and others emphasized the need for bullying prevention interventions to focus on building positive school wide culture, enhancing peer connections and acceptance for all, and building mentoring relationships between adults and youth. These pioneers in our field rightly told us that just dealing with individuals who bully and individuals who are bullied will not solve this problem if we do not address school culture and connectedness. Students in the Youth Voice Project and the more than 70,000 students we have met with in assemblies and discussion clearly agree. When asked, a large majority of students always tell us that they would choose a school in which a few people called them names but in which they had friends and a sense of belonging over a school in which no one called them names but no one acknowledged them or included them. In the Youth Voice Project, a sense of belonging at school and a sense of being valued and respected at school were the only two factors that correlated significantly with decreased trauma after mistreatment in all grade levels between 5 and 12. In addition, youth said that actions of inclusion and affiliation by peers were the most effective interventions that helped things get better after they were mistreated.


    1. The pioneers in this work told us from the beginning that bullied youth should not be asked to stop others from bullying them, as they are often not able to do so. The Youth Voice Project research confirmed these statements. Youth reported that asking or telling those who mistreated them to stop rarely worked. Students told us that when adults told them “this would not happen if you act differently,” things were more likely to get worse for them than to get better. Moreover, youth in grades 6 through 12 told us that telling themselves that the mean actions were chosen by the person being mean to them – and had nothing to do with them – was likely to help. We need to continue to disagree with the popularly held notion that bullied youth are bullied because they don’t assert themselves, or because they show hurt or fear. The person choosing to bully has made a choice to mistreat. That person is fully responsible for his or her own actions.In three areas, what we have learned from youth lead us to question elements that have been widespread in our field.


    1. There has been widespread advocacy for the idea that peer bystanders can stop bullying by “standing up against it,” by confronting those who bully, by “speaking up.” The mistreated students in our Youth Voice Project survey, by contrast, described actions of angry OR peaceful confrontation as less likely to lead to positive outcomes and more likely to lead to negative outcomes than a wide range of “support and encourage” strategies. They told us that the most helpful peer actions involved peers spending time with the mistreated students and including them. Youth told us that listening and encouragement were almost as effective as inclusion. This was true even when the actions of encouragement and support for mistreated youth were done privately or away from school. This finding is confirmed by something we have consistently heard from adults in trainings. For some years, we have been asking adults in trainings what they would like friends to do–and not to do–if they were in an abusive relationship. Universally, adults say they would want time, emotional support, and help with getting resources. They have said that they would not want friends to judge them. When we ask what they would MOST want friends not to do, adults answer, “confront the person who is abusing me.”  They identify the negative outcomes that would be likely to follow from such confrontation by a peer. As we see it, it is time to stop asking peer bystanders to use confrontation in bullying situations and instead to ask peers to include and encourage the person who has been mistreated. In other words, instead of asking peer bystanders to “stop bullying” we can ask youth to stop their peers’ isolation, to stop sadness, to stop helplessness.


    1. As we reflect on the focus of the bullying prevention movement, it seems to us that we have often focused on stopping mean behavior without an equal focus on promoting resiliency for all youth. Since no effort will completely eliminate hurtful peer actions, it is time that we focus equal energy on promoting connectedness, and on promoting the cognitive elements of resiliency such as Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset thinking. As a student told Stan in Massachusetts recently, some people are harder to hurt than others are–and it would be good if everyone were hard to hurt. Recent discussions with youth tell us that most young people see resiliency as something that can be acquired, and that they are eager to build their own inner strength.


  1. Finally, we have been led to question the decision–made early in this movement–to put a lot of energy into differentiating between bullying and other negative peer behaviors. We have focused on highly subjective criteria such as intention to harm and power differential in making that distinction. In that way, we have excluded from our definitions of bullying actions which also have significant potential for harm. Negative actions which we think are done without intent to harm can do harm. Mean actions done by a friend or same-status peer can wound significantly. In addition, the word “bullying” has come to include such diverse actions as eye-rolling and physical assault. As we see it, these two definitional issues have reduced our effectiveness. As we talk with youth, we often find that they do not like the word “bullying.” They make fun of it and (as others have also stated) criticize the concept as not reflecting their reality. More seriously, it seems there is no way to use the word “bullying” without provoking widespread use of the noun “bully” to describe youth who mistreat their peers. In a recent assembly, teens told Stan that the word “bully” is a form of labelling that implies that people who mistreat others cannot change. They used the words “hopeless,” “negative,” and “depressing” to describe the words “bullying,” “bully,” and “victim.” A number of us in this field are proposing that we change this strategy of differentiating between bullying and other negative behaviors. Instead of focusing on whether an action is intended to harm or is across a status differential, we propose that adults and youth focus on an action’s potential to harm physically or emotionally. No matter what decisions we make about the word “bullying,” it seems clear that we should do all in our power to discourage the widespread use of nouns like “bully” to describe people. We propose that we use the word “person.” Person who called names. Person who was called names. Person who witnessed name calling. When we describe actions instead of using nouns to describe people, we can build hope for change.

For more information, see Youth Voice Project: Student Insights into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment, available from Research Press at https://www.researchpress.com/books/1106/youth-voice-project

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top