Peer-based anti-bullying initiatives may harm victims more, researcher says

Oct. 20 (UPI) — Encouraging classmates to defend bullied pupils may do more harm than good, according to a review of existing research published Tuesday by Child Development Perspectives.

Unlike programs that include parental training, firm discipline or enhanced playground supervision, interventions that involve working with the peers of bullied students tend to lead to increases in the behavior, the author wrote.

So-called “bystander interventions,” in which peers are trained to come to the defense of the bullying victims, may actually increase feelings of victimization and distress by “disempowering” them, reinforcing or provoking bullying or eroding broader support for them, the review suggests.

“Many school bullying prevention programs encourage and train peer bystanders, or helpers, to get actively involved in assisting with possible instances of bullying,” review co-author Karyn L. Healy said in a statement.

“Although this approach is very common and well-intentioned, there is no evidence that it helps victims [and it] may actually produce adverse outcomes for victims,” said Healy, a research officer from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia.

Although most researchers agree school bullying is harmful to students’ mental health, studies designed to evaluate the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs have generated mixed results and demonstrated few if any benefits for secondary school students.

Most studies on the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs assume that each program affects bullying and victimization in a simple and unified way.

Healy found, however, that many programs combine a range of different strategies and participants, which are likely to produce varying results.

Recent evidence suggests that even when prevention programs are successful in reducing bullying, they still may be harmful to the individual students who are victimized the most.

“Having lots of peers involved makes the situation more public, which can be damaging to the social reputation of victims, [and] also prevents the victim from handling a situation themselves and may make them look weak in the eyes of the bully,” Healy said.

“Training students to intervene in bullying also has the potential of leading to overuse of peer defense strategies because of benefits to helpers, such as making helpers feel they have higher status or increasing helpers’ feelings of belonging in school,” she said.

To lessen the risk to vulnerable students, Healy suggests that schools be wary of bullying prevention programs that lack evidence of effectiveness for reducing bullying and victimization.

Schools should avoid using strategies that boost peer visibility of victimization, such as identifying a victim in a class meeting, she said.

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