NEWS

School Bullying Drops During COVID-19 Pandemic, Research Shows

kids being bullies in the school yard

Verywell / Catherine Song

Key Takeaways

  • The research found that rates of most kinds of school bullying dropped significantly among Canadian students during the pandemic.
  • Cyberbullying rates only dipped slightly, from about 14% to 11.5% during the pandemic
  • Girls, elementary school students, and those who identified as gender diverse were most likely to be victims of bullying.

Students have faced many changes at their schools throughout the pandemic, from virtual learning to socially distanced classrooms. But, while these changes have been challenging, a new study has found that they may have come with a hidden upside: Less school bullying.

New research in the journal Aggressive Behavior looked at survey data from thousands of Canadian students and found that rates of many types of school bullying have been significantly lower during the pandemic compared with previous levels. Cyberbullying, however, remained almost as high as it was before the pandemic.

Here’s what the study found about school bullying during the pandemic, and advice from experts on how to keep bullying rates low this fall.

The Study

For the study, researchers looked a survey data from a total of 6,578 students in Ontario between grades 4 through 12. The students ranged in age from 8 to 19 years old, with the average participant being 13. The group consisted of a roughly equal proportion of boys and girls, and slightly more than 2% of gender diverse students. While some students were enrolled in online learning, most had returned to schools in person by September 2020.

Researchers randomly split the participants into two groups. One group, which included 2,683 students, answered survey questions about their experience with school bullying between September 2020 through November 2020. The remaining 3,895 students responded to questions about what school bullying was like for them before the pandemic, from September 2019 to March 2020. 

The results showed that 39.5% of students said they were bullied during the pandemic, compared with nearly 60% before March 2020. The rate of students who admitted to bullying others also dropped from almost 25% to 13% during the pandemic. 

Darby Fox, LCSW

The study is a powerful reminder of how prevalent bullying is for our youth and something we societally need to address.

— Darby Fox, LCSW

The researchers found that the rates of all bullying, including physical, verbal, social, and cyber, were higher before the pandemic than in the fall of 2020. Cyberbullying only fell about 2 percentage points, while other types of bullying dropped significantly.

“School-age kids were online an extraordinary amount of time and it would have been easy to continue to bully and tease kids if cyberbullying were something you had done previously,” says Darby Fox, LCSW, child and adolescent family therapist and author of “Rethinking Your Teenager: Shifting from Control and Conflict to Structure and Nurture to Raise Accountable Young Adults.” “The use of screens for online school opened kids up for bullying about their homes or their appearance on screens—even incidents of mask shaming.”

Still, the rates of bullying during the pandemic indicate that many students are being victimized by their classmates. In general, students who were in elementary school, girls, and/or gender diverse or LGBTQ+ were most likely to be victims of bullying.

“The study is a powerful reminder of how prevalent bullying is for our youth and something we societally need to address,” says Fox.

Understanding Falling Rates of School Bullying 

While this study focused on Canadian students, experts say the findings would likely also hold true for students in the U.S., who experienced similar changes to their learning environments during the pandemic.

“The schools in both countries followed similar patterns of closure, online instruction, then reopening policies. Once schools reopened, the classroom sizes remained smaller and students spread apart,” says Fox. “The careful monitoring for appropriate social distancing likely also helped prevent in-person bullying.”

It’s likely that the adjustments to the learning environment to keep kids safe from COVID-19 also eliminated some opportunities for bullying at school, says Ingrid Peper, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker at Thriveworks Atlanta.

Ingrid Peper, LCSW

There was less opportunity for students to interact socially, smaller groups in the classroom with more availability for teachers to supervise, and more online supervision from parents and teachers, which would deter bullies.

— Ingrid Peper, LCSW

“There was less opportunity for students to interact socially, smaller groups in the classroom with more availability for teachers to supervise, and more online supervision from parents and teachers, which would deter bullies,” she explains.

Plus, the unprecedented global pandemic may have increased compassion among students, leading to better treatment of one another.

“Trying to adjust to online learning, the challenges of completing assignments, and coping with their feelings of isolation, family issues, and sadness allowed for less space in students’ hearts and minds to bully others,” suggests Peper. “Children had COVID-19 as a common enemy and perhaps respected each other more during the pandemic, since all were trying to manage and understand the ongoing situation.”

Keeping Bullying Rates Low This Fall

Keeping bullying rates low this fall will require a multi-pronged approach from schools, teachers, and parents. 

“The first point to keeping bullying rate low is schools to hold all personnel accountable for knowledge of and implementation of anti-bullying policies,” says Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. “Schools need to show a strong front that bullying is a serious matter and detrimental to all. The occurrence of bullying on the school campus should never be dismissed, disregarded, explained away, or minimized.”

Mayra Mendez, PhD

Schools needs to show a strong front that bullying is a serious matter and detrimental to all.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD

Fox recommends that schools hold classroom discussions and create peer advocacy groups to tackle bullying. 

Parents can also play a role by teaching their children about the dangers of bullying and monitoring their online behavior for cyberbullying.

“The cyberbullying is particularly damaging because it can be 24/7 targeting,” says Fox. “Parents need to be vigilant about their kids’ social media usage.”

Whether school bullying rates will continue to drop remains to be seen, but the more students feel that their schools and online learning environments are safe, respectful spaces where all are welcome, the more likely it is that they’ll show each other support and respect, says Peper.

“[Teachers can] work on creating a haven where all children will be comfortable being themselves, knowing that [teachers] or their…classmates have their back,” she says. “[Students] need to know that regardless of what is going on in [their] home environment, the classroom is a place of respect and caring for each other, which extends to the cyber world.”

What This Means For You

Schools underwent many changes during the pandemic, but one silver lining can be seen in the rates of bullying. New research shows that students reported a significant drop in bullying compared to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s unclear whether bullying rates will remain low this fall. Experts recommend that schools implement clear policies that address bullying. While teachers try to create classrooms where students feel comfortable being themselves. Parents should also talk to their children about the dangers of bullying and keep an eye on their online behavior to ensure that they’re not engaging in cyberbullying or falling victim to it.

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  1. Vaillancourt T, Brittain H, Krygsman A, Farrell AH, Landon S, Pepler D. School bullying before and during COVID-19: results from a population-based randomized design. Aggress Behav. Published online July 7, 2021. doi:10.1002/ab.21986