September 25, 2013

Correlation is Not Causality, or Why Bullying Prevention Programs Probably Don’t Increase Bullying

With all the attention to preventing bullying in schools, many of us should (and do) wonder how effective these programs are. A recent national study assessed relationships between rates of 6th-10th grade student victimization and various individual and school-level characteristics. The study is valuable in that it provides information on numerous factors that may be related to increased victimization. However, this study has garnered attention for one particular finding: students in schools with bullying prevention programs had higher rates of victimization than students in schools without programs, leading some to wonder if bullying prevention programs actually increase bullying. It is important for us (researchers, scholars, educators, and advocates) to take a step back to consider what these findings really tell us – and don’t tell us – about the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs.pull quote 1

The authors, who admittedly did not expect this finding, suggest one possible explanation – students who engage in bullying behaviors learned, but chose not to use, the lessons of the program. Yet, surprisingly, the authors did not entertain one of the more likely explanations: correlation is not causality. In other words, just because students in schools with bullying prevention programs had higher rates of peer victimization does not mean that bullying prevention programs caused the victimization. It is just as likely that schools with higher levels of victimization are the exact schools that choose to implement bullying prevention programs. So it may very well be that the bullying prevention program is not causing high victimization, but that high victimization necessitated the program.

We also do not know what types of bullying prevention programs were assessed for this study. School administrators were simply asked to respond “yes/no" whether their school had a bullying prevention program. Each administrator may have a different interpretation of what qualifies as a bullying prevention program – some may consider anything that addresses peer relationships; others may adhere to a strict definition of bullying (victimization that is repeated, occurring over time, and committed by someone with greater power) that may or may not address broader peer victimization behaviors like those assessed in this study. Yet, as the authors themselves note, there is no information about the programs’ type, content, or scope. Were these programs in-depth or just a one-time assembly? Did they reach all members of the school community or were they focused solely on students? All these factors would influence the effectiveness of a program.

Undoubtedly, there are good bullying prevention programs and some not-so-good programs. Schools often have few staff resources or financial resources to devote to program selection or implementation; they also may have little information on what programs would work best, and thus may resort to selecting a program of convenience (i.e., the one adopted by their neighboring school or one requiring less investment) rather than the one most effective for their school community. Therefore, this study might be demonstrating that bad programs are ineffective at best, or potentially damaging at worst. It likely tells us nothing about the effects of a well-designed and properly implemented program.

pull quote 1One question we have about bullying programs is whether they address bias-based bullying (i.e., bullying that is motivated by bias or prejudice against a group of people), a type of bullying found to have greater negative effects than other types of bullying. Specifically, programs need to explicitly address bias and prejudice, including bias against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Programs that do not may fail to effectively make schools safer for LGBT youth (a population who suffer from disproportionately high rates of school victimization). Any assessment of bullying programs should examine LGBT-inclusion. Unfortunately, this study does not help shed any light on these questions. Like most research on peer victimization, the data used for this study did not include sexual orientation or transgender status in student demographics, nor did it ask about experiences of anti-LGBT victimization. And given that most bullying programs do not explicitly address anti-LGBT bullying, it is unlikely that the programs implemented by the schools would have a real impact on the victimization of LGBT youth.

So, what does this study tell us about the types of programs we believe schools should have in place - high in quality, designed to address a broad array of peer victimization (including bias-based bullying), matched to schools’ needs, and implemented with fidelity? Most likely, not much. More research is needed to better understand which programs are effective and for which types of victimization. What we already know is that schools cannot wait to take action – they need to thoughtfully assess and select an approach to combat peer victimization, and ensure that it explicitly addresses bias and prejudice, including anti-LGBT bias. And we all should strive to ensure that schools have the financial support and public will to do so.

For resources that do address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools, check out:
-    GLSEN’s model policies
-    Educator resources
-    Materials for Gay-Straight Alliances

Emily Greytak

About Emily Greytak

Emily Greytak, Ph.D. is GLSEN's Director of Research. She first became involved with GLSEN 15 years ago as a volunteer with her local chapter and has been part of the GLSEN staff since 2006. Follow @GLSENResearch to stay informed of current research on LGBT issues in education.

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