Amid growing concern over school violence, a nationwide study has found that bullying affects nearly one of every three U.S. children in sixth through 10th grades. Young students and boys were most likely to be affected.
The authors say their survey of 15,686 public and private school students is among the first to document the prevalence of bullying, and the results show that not enough has been done to prevent what is often seen as an unpleasant rite of passage.
"It's a problem that has been in a lot of ways ignored for quite a while," said researcher Tonja Nansel of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the study's lead author.
The 1998 survey, part of the U.S. contribution to a study of worldwide childhood health and behavior by the World Health Organization, appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
Bullying has been implicated in recent school shootings, including the March slayings of two students in Santee, Calif., and the 1999 massacre of 13 by two suicidal students at Colorado's Columbine High School.
A growing number of schools across the country have adopted bullying intervention programs; the Colorado Legislature is considering a proposal that would require school districts to develop an anti-bullying policy.
Nansel said such programs have been shown to work in other countries but are untested in the United States, where efforts to address the problem have been hampered by a pervasive attitude "that kids will be kids and this is just going to happen."
Since nationwide research on bullying is so scarce, the survey doesn't show whether the U.S. prevalence is rising, she said. And while it did not examine criminal behavior, the survey found that fighting was more common among both bullied and bullying children.
Overall, 30 percent of students in the survey reported occasional or frequent involvement as a victim and/or perpetrator in bullying defined as verbal or physical behavior designed to disturb someone less powerful.
More than 16 percent said they'd been bullied at least occasionally during the current school term and 8 percent reported bullying or being bullied at least once weekly.
Looks or speech were far more frequent targets of bullying than race or religion, the survey found.
Children who said they were bullied reported more loneliness and difficulty making friends, while those who did the bullying were more likely to have poor grades and to smoke and drink alcohol, the survey found.
Other research has shown that people who were bullied as children are prone to depression and low self-esteem as adults, and that bullies are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.
Nansel said the pervasiveness of bullying doesn't mean it should be accepted as inevitable, noting that studies in England and Noray have shown that school-based intervention programs can reduce it by 30 percent to 50 percent.
Kevin Dwyer, a school psychologist and adviser for the National Mental Health Association, said there is evidence that the incidence of physical fights and violence in schools has actually declined in recent years.
To reduce bullying, schools need to involve all staff members, parents and even student bystanders, whose silence may suggest tacit approval.
"People need to recognize that adolescence is not an easy time," he said. "We should prepare for it, which we don't. We treat adolescents as if they're little adults and we request of them to kind of take care of themselves."
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