Evidence that bullying may be in decline

For a number of years bullying has attracted a lot of attention, and schools have justifiably come under heavy criticism for not doing enough to stop it. The good news is that the pressure appears to have started producing some results. The problem is far from solved, but there's evidence that it may -- may -- be starting to get better.

Every odd-numbered year the School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey polls students aged 12-18 all across the U.S. to ask about their experiences with various types of school-related crime in school. Since 2005 the questions have included bullying. In 2013, the most recent year, the percentage of students reporting being bullies was about 22 percent. It's higher for girls than for boys by several percentage points. This is outrageously high and intolerable.

But the percentages in 2013 were also noticeably lower than in previous years: Reports of bullying peaked at 32 percent overall in 2007, and in 2005, 2009, and 2011 the number was about 28 percent. So 22 percent is a non-trivial reduction, even if still far too high in absolute terms.

The declined holds across almost all subgroups -- for boys and girls, for every grade, for urban, suburban, and rural areas, and for blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics. The only exception is that overall bullying numbers actually went up a little in private schools, but that could possibly reflect a sampling error or other statistical fluke.

Of course, it's also conceivable that the statistical fluke is in the rest of the numbers. Or maybe 2013 was an unusually low year as 2007 was an unusually high one. The report for 2015 will give us a better idea.

Incidentally, I'm once again getting this from a blog post by pediatrician Aaron Carroll. There a lots of links to source material and other commentary in his post.

As Dr Carroll notes, odds are the improvement won't attract much attention in the news media. More press coverage may cause people to think the problem is getting worse, just as many people think that crime overall is rising whereas it actually peaked in the U.S. a little over 20 years ago and has since fallen to levels not seen in half a century. Excessive pessimism isn't limited to perceptinos of crime rates. Many people think the U.S. federal budget deficit is increasing when it's actually been falling faster than over any comparable period since the 1940s.

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