You most likely have witnessed bullying in the past. What did you do? Walk away, ignore it, or intervene? A new UCLA—led study has found that an anti-bullying program focused on bystanders helps the students who need it the most. The findings were published online on January 21 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
The study group comprised more than 7,000 students in 77 elementary schools in Finland; it found that one program significantly benefited the mental health of sixth-graders who experienced the most bullying. It markedly improved their self-esteem and reduced their depression. The anti-bullying program, KiVa, includes role-playing exercises to increase the empathy of bystanders and computer simulations, which encourage students to think about how they would intervene to reduce bullying. (In Finnish, “Kiusaamista vastaan” means “against bullying”; the word “kiva” means “nice.”) Lead author Jaana Juvonen, PhD, a professor of psychology at UCLA, noted that KiVa is one of the world’s most effective anti-bullying programs. She said, “Our findings are the first to show that the most tormented children, those facing bullying several times a week, can be helped by teaching bystanders to be more supportive.”
About half (39) of the schools in the study used KiVa; in the other 38 schools, the students were provided some information about combating bullying; however, these efforts were much less comprehensive. Anti-bullying programs are usually evaluated based on whether they decrease the average rates of bullying. Until this study, no school-wide programs have been found to help those who most need help: children subjected to repeated bullying.
The researchers found that KiVa markedly reduced the depression among the 4% of sixth graders who were bullied most frequently, on at least a weekly basis. They also found improved self-esteem among the approximately 15% of sixth graders who had been bullied at least a few times per month. A recent meta-analysis of 53 anti-bullying programs worldwide showed that the KiVa program was one of the most effective. Nine months after implementation of the program, the odds that a given student was subjected to bullying were 1.5 to nearly 2 times higher in control schools than in KiVa schools nine months after KiVa’s implementation.
“Our analysis shows that KiVa improves students’ perceptions of the school environment, especially among those who are bullied. For sixth-graders, it also improves their mental health, which is a big issue,” noted Dr. Juvonen, who has conducted research on bullying for more than two decades. He added, “Typically we think individuals with mental health needs must be addressed individually. The beauty here is that this school-wide program is very effective for the children who most need support.”
Students in all grade levels studied (fourth through sixth) benefited in terms of having significantly more favorable perceptions of the school environment. This was especially true for the students who were most frequently bullied before the intervention. Dr. Juvonen does not advocate zero-tolerance school policies, which she claims that they punish students but do not teach them about bullying. Rather, KiVa is much more effective in promoting kindness to others.
Dr. Juvonen explained that KiVa is now Finland’s national anti-bullying program; it is being tested and used in several other European countries, and it is being evaluated in the United States. It is based on scholarly research on bullying, including Dr. Juvonen’s; however, she was not involved in developing the program.
Previous studies on bullying by Juvonen and her colleagues have found that:
- Individuals on social media are often unsupportive of cyberbullying victims who have shared highly personal feelings.
- Bullies are considered the “cool” kids in school.
- About 3 of 4 teens say they were bullied online at least once during a 12-month period.
- Almost 50% of the sixth graders at two Los Angeles–area schools said they were bullied by classmates during a five-day period.