It has been linked to increased depression in children and young adults, and it's something almost every child will experience: More than 70 percent of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools. About a third report being the victim of the bullying, and another third report acting as a bully.
Bullying prevention programs are a key part of many schools' character education, but their effectiveness is unclear — some report moderate success, others fail to make much of a difference.
One Central Michigan University researcher is looking at a new approach: training children to become better bystanders.
How bystanders can help
Bullying situations are complex, said Stephanie Fredrick, a psychology faculty member. Often, multiple children are involved: those who encourage or even assist the bully, those who act to help the victim, and those who are bystanders and witnesses to the bullying.
Not every child feels confident enough to physically step in to stop a bully, Fredrick said. Interrupting the event could make the child a new target for the bully or even put the child in danger.
Instead, Fredrick and her colleagues focused on ways these bystanders could help before, during and after the incident.
"It could be as simple as going to get an adult helper, or asking 'Are you OK?' It could be sitting with the victim at lunch," Fredrick said.
The project began with a survey of approximately 600 elementary and middle school students. Children answered questions about whether they recognized bullying behavior when they saw it, whether they felt a responsibility to stop it and if they knew what actions they could take to help.
Fredrick and her students also collected data on the long-term impact of bullying. They surveyed college students about their experiences being bullied in high school and are investigating the effectiveness of social support programs offered by colleges and universities.
Social-emotional learning in schools
In addition to her team's research, Fredrick works with schools around Midland, Michigan, to create learning environments that encourage empathy and relationship-building.
"If we can create a more positive classroom climate and improve children's social skills, we can hopefully decrease bullying," she said.
She noted that children who have better social skills are also more likely to help victims or even step in to stop bullying when they see it.