Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice - A Canadian Perspective

The Royal Society of Canada is pleased to announce the publication of a new Expert Panel report from its sister academy, the National Academies in the United States. The full report can be accessed online.

Wendy Craig

Dr. Wendy Craig, FRSC, has kindly provided a Canadian perspective on this report and its relevance to Canada and Canadians. Dr. Wendy Craig is a leading international scientist and expert on bullying prevention and the promotion of healthy relationships. As co-founder and Scientific co-Director of PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), she has transformed our understanding of bullying and effectively translated the science into evidence-based practise, intervention, and policy and had a profound influence on communities across Canada. She is a professor and Head of the Department of Psychology. Dr. Craig was an external reviewer for this report and provided comments on an earlier draft.

Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice - A Canadian Perspective

Humans are social beings and the capacity to relate to others lays the foundation for adaptation across the lifespan. Bullying is a destructive relationship problem in which power and aggression are used to control and distress others. In Canada and internationally, there is a growing recognition of bullying as a public health issue because of its long-term and detrimental consequences. Canada’s ranking on the international stage dropped over 10 years, suggesting that other countries have been preventing bullying problems more effectively than Canada. The decreasing rates of bullying problems in the US may be linked to the national bullying prevention campaign and investment in research by the US government. Recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conducted a comprehensive review of what is known and what needs to be known to further the field of preventing bullying behavior. The primary recommendations from this report included:

  • Definitional and measurement issues and inconsistencies create significant problems for surveillance and monitoring of the problem of bullying, and victimization.  In particular, more research is needed on cyberbullying. 
  • Understanding peer victimization requires a comprehensive and systemic approach. Children and youth are embedded in multiple contexts (i.e., family, peers, school, and community) and each of these contexts can influence individual characteristics in ways that either exacerbate or diminish the association between these individual characteristics and perpetrating and/or being the target of bullying behavior.
  • Experiences of victimization lead to significant physical and mental health problems, including suicide in extreme cases. Destructive peer relationships involving bullying can trigger profound physiological changes in the expression of a gene linked to mood, making affected children vulnerable to cognitive and mental health problems as they age.  Victimization, linked with depressive symptoms and high cortisol due to stress, uniquely predicts children’s memory deficits, undermining their capacity to learn and function socially. More research is needed on the effects of peer victimization on the brain. 
  • Children and youth who experience peer victimization and bully others are at the greatest risk for negative mental, physical, and psychosocial outcomes. 
  • Some groups of children are more vulnerable to peer victimization than others (e.g., those based on race/ethnicity or sexual orientation) are at a higher risk for being victimized but are less frequently researched. 
  • Existing evidence suggests that both social-cognitive and emotion regulation processes may mediate the relation between being bullied and adverse mental health outcomes. However, there is much more to be researched in how these processes interact with neural processes and genes to produce the variability in outcomes. 
  • Programs aimed at reducing bullying and victimization have had modest effects, although there is consensus that a multi-component approach is most effective. 
  • Many bullying prevention programs include peer led components, however, there is limited empirical research examining the extent to which peer-led programs are effective and robust against potentially iatrogenic effects.
  • There are limited evaluations of selective and indicative programs, and especially for programs for vulnerable groups of youth. 
  • There is evidence indicating that the use of zero tolerance practises are ineffective at reducing bullying and victimization and consequently, these practises should be discontinued. 
  • Additional research is needed to further evaluate the effectiveness of bullying prevention laws and policies and the mechanisms through which these laws and policies reduce bullying (e.g., change in perceptions of school safety or norms around bullying).

Relevance of Report for Canada

Public concern about peer victimization by bullying and its detrimental consequences is at an all-time high in Canada: almost 90% of Canadians say they are worried about youth bullying, 83% are concerned about cyberbullying, and 78% of Canadians believe not enough is being done to stop bullying. Experiences of bullying are pervasive: 59% of Canadian adults report being bullied during their childhood and teen years – more than 15 million adults; and 45%, almost 7 million adults, report harmful effects of bullying lasting into adulthood. In 2014, 30% of Canadian children were directly affected by bullying behaviour, as either victimized students, students who bully, or students who both bully others and are victimized. In Canada, there is an emerging consensus regarding the importance of preventing bullying and a growing recognition of the serious behavioural, biological, health, social, and economic costs of involvement in bullying. There are many programming and policy initiatives across the country to address this problem and reduce its consequences. From a legislative perspective, provincial and territorial governments include bullying prevention in expectations for safe schools, however the capacity of schools to address and evaluate their efforts is limited and partnerships with researchers are much needed. These prevention efforts however, are disjointed, inconsistent, unevenly distributed across Canadian communities, and only moderately successful. The lack of effectiveness arises from a need to have research inform education and training, assessment and evaluation, prevention, and intervention through effective knowledge mobilization, as well as from missing scientific knowledge on the root causes and processes related to the development of bullying and victimization and their outcomes. 

There is a need to build a stronger scientific foundation for efforts to prevent bullying and promote healthy relationships. Canada has a high concentration of researchers in this area and a well-established knowledge mobilization network, PREVNet- Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence, dedicated to translating science into practice.  However, there is limited funds available to conduct the much needed from cell to society research proposed in this report. To address the key research questions proposed by this report, a network of multidisciplinary researchers and multi-sectorial partnerships significant research funding and long term investment.  In Canada, there has never been funding to conduct broad-based interdisciplinary research on bullying prevention and children’s social-emotional development to address the critical questions raised in the report.  In Canada, we have the researchers and the network to do this critical work and lead the world.

The consequences of failing to protect children from violence and support them in developing healthy Canada’s future depends on the achievement and wellbeing of its children and youth. In UNICEF’s 2013 report on child wellbeing in rich countries, Canada ranked poorly on factors related to children’s social-emotional development and mental health. Canada ranked in the bottom third on bullying (20th of 28). Canada also ranked among the lowest (25th of 28) on the quality of family and peer relationships. Canada ranked 24th of 29 countries on students’ reports of their life satisfaction. These ratings highlight the need for knowledge on the key neurodevelopmental, social-emotional, and relationship processes that underlie risks for involvement in bullying and the potential processes of change to inform practices, programming and policies. The individual, health, social, and economic costs associated with bullying are enormous. By preventing violence and promoting relationships, we can optimize children’s healthy physical, emotional, and cognitive development—all of which underlie well-being, citizenship, and productivity.