Approximately 22 percent of students ages 12 to 18 have experienced bullying at school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While there are no causal links between bullying and suicide, research shows that bullying, along with other factors, may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts. Bullying isn’t new, but it’s changed in some significant ways in the digital age. The ubiquitous use of social media and the internet, particularly in youth culture, has expanded the platforms where bullying can occur.
Devising meaningful solutions to bullying — and the nation’s school bullying epidemic specifically — falls on the shoulders of school administrators, teachers, parents and others. However, social workers can play an important role in combating school bullying. The skills and education attained by earning a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) can prepare school social workers to develop anti-bullying initiatives, provide meaningful counseling and educate communities about prevention and response.
What School Bullying Looks Like Today
Typically, when people think of school bullying, they imagine children repeatedly teasing, name-calling, physically attacking and spreading rumors meant to intimidate and humiliate their targets. While bullying is not a new phenomenon, the internet, social media, texting and instant messaging apps have made it easier for bullies to target their peers anytime, anywhere.
The emergence of this technology has made it increasingly difficult for bullied children to avoid their tormentors. Bullies can taunt their peers with vicious online comments, and then others can anonymously add their own cruel posts, making the targets of bullying feel like everyone is against them.
Exacerbating the issue, audiences are no longer limited to the few individuals standing around the locker room during an incident. The digital world widens the audience to almost anyone interested in watching, only worsening the humiliation of those bullied and their sense of alienation.
Beyond the Classroom: Cyberbullying in a Post-Pandemic World
Young people today face bullying online as well as in the classroom. Just like more traditional forms of bullying, cyberbullying exacts an emotional and psychological toll on its victims. Cyberbullying can take the form of texts, social media posts, private messages and video calls.
While this phenomenon existed before the global COVID-19 pandemic, national stay-at-home orders and online learning environments created fertile environments for cyberbullying.
In 2020, people around the world — including children — spent 20 percent more time on social media than they did before the pandemic, Statista reported. Cyberbullying typically takes place on social media. According to a September 2020 report from Statista, among cyberbullying victims, 81 percent of women and 68 percent of men reported that the online harassment took place on social media — more than double the rate of any other online forum.
In a separate report, Statista noted the highest rates of cyberbullying by student users occurred on the following social media platforms:
- YouTube: 79 percent
- Snapchat: 69 percent
- TikTok: 64 percent
In 2021, Forbes reported that cyberbullying is rampant on Instagram and similar platforms, where teens and children constantly compare their own profiles and experiences to the hyperpolished, unrealistic profiles of influencers and advertisers.
Additionally, the prevalence of cyberbullying is notably higher among LGBTQIA+ youth. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 26.6 percent of high school students who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual reported being cyberbullied, compared with 14.1 percent of straight students.
The increase in cyberbullying has spurred social workers to redouble their efforts to find solutions to bullying.
The Role of Social Workers in Combating Bullying
Social workers’ training gives them a unique skill set to find solutions to bullying. Their study of social behavior provides them with a deeper understanding of both bullies and their targets, making social workers particularly capable of designing effective anti-bullying programs using evidence-based methods to alter behavior.
In addition, their clinical training and counseling experience makes them well equipped to provide support to those who have been bullied.
Finally, their schooling in advocacy, leadership and staff development positions them to educate their schools and communities about the best approaches to handling bullying. The following are key ways social workers can help address school bullying:
Social workers play an active role in the development and support of anti-bullying initiatives throughout schools. For example, the online program StandUp uses recognized behavior modification methods — such as the transtheoretical model of change, which guides changes in behavior through five stages — to stop bullying.
The frequently used Olweus Bullying Prevention Program takes a three-pronged approach: assessing the role of a school’s environment, developing rules and discussions in the classroom, and intervening at the individual level to halt bullying behavior and provide victim support.
During the implementation of anti-bullying programs, social workers can respond to questions from parents and faculty, as well as actively engage students who’ve witnessed or participated in bullying.
Support for Those Who Have Been Bullied
Targets of bullying often suffer from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. They’re also likely to experience physical manifestations of their distress in the form of headaches and stomachaches. Trained support can help them cope with their experiences.
Social workers can provide a safe space where targets of bullying can discuss their experiences and feelings. By listening to them, social workers can help affirm their dignity. Because targets of bullying often report feeling humiliated, it’s important that they find a safe space in which they feel respected and seen. In addition to offering support, social workers can suggest approaches to redirecting behaviors during bullying incidents.
Students, teachers and administrators can work toward finding solutions to bullying if they understand the peer dynamics involved and how to handle specific bullying incidents. Social workers can prove instrumental in providing this information.
First, they can spread awareness among teachers about identifying the signs of bullying. Next, they can provide the tools and approaches to managing bullying behavior that have proven most effective. For example, they can discourage using the labels “bully” and “victim” when dealing with students, as applying such labels often reinforces roles and behaviors.
Social workers can also teach students ways to address bullying. For instance, instructing students how to speak out against bullying instead of ignoring it can discourage bullying behaviors.
Finally, social workers can inform school leaders about practices and policies that reduce maladaptive behaviors like bullying. For example, building student connectedness within a school instead of focusing on punishment can create the kind of school environment needed to effectively prevent school bullying.
Resources for Addressing Bullying
Parents and school administrators are also seeking effective ways to prevent and intervene in bullying. While limited funding for curriculum, supplies, faculty and staff may present resource barriers for developing new programs, many schools are choosing to prioritize anti-bullying curricula and programs.
These programs can take many forms, but research suggests that solutions to bullying can be complex and rely on taking stock of various factors, including the environments of homes and schools, peer groups, cultural norms and interpersonal development. A one-off school assembly or weeklong campaign with posters and catchy phrases will likely yield minimal results.
One easy step schools can take is educating families on the signs and effects of bullying. According to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Social Work associate professor in teaching Nicole O-Pries, M.S.W., LCSW: “When you share information with parents about how their kids might respond to trauma, it normalizes behaviors. So kids aren’t left alone with their feelings and their behaviors, thinking that there’s something wrong with them.”
Research also shows social and emotional learning (SEL) programs that increase empathy, develop a student’s ability to manage emotions and reduce aggression can build an excellent foundation for preventing bullying. Not only do these programs help students cope with their emotions in a more productive way, they also increase students’ receptiveness to anti-bullying initiatives.
O-Pries, an expert in trauma-informed social work, advocates for preventive measures: “They can make a big difference for kids in terms of how much more quickly they could be in a better place.”
Become Part of the Solution to Bullying as a Social Worker
Creating effective solutions to bullying requires expertise in many areas. The Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Master of Social Work offers the comprehensive preparation needed to innovate solutions that address issues like school bullying.
The curriculum trains students in theories that can help direct intervention work, a useful tool for addressing school bullying. Coursework also covers diagnosing and treating disorders, including behavioral and emotional disorders, as well as tools for relationship building. In addition, the program provides a range of learning experiences that help students master the knowledge and skills of the social work profession.
Learn more about how VCU’s Master of Social Work Program online format can complement any existing educational background and provide the skills necessary to approach school bullying as a social worker.