Voices in Education

Do Bullying Laws Work?
Before 2005, only 15 states had laws about bullying. Since that year, the number of states with laws has more than tripled, yet the debate over the legitimacy and effectiveness of these laws persists. Should we have laws that pertain to antisocial—but not criminal—behaviors? Morality can’t be legislated, it’s often said. If bullying isn’t typically a crime, does it hurt or help to enact laws designed to reduce it? Does anyone want to throw every 11-year-old who spouts a mean remark into prison?

Certain realities definitely limit the utility of bullying prevention laws. Laws against murder are invoked when there’s a dead body—an obvious sign that a crime has been committed. No such clear-cut indicator exists in the case of bullying. In fact, there’s good evidence that we tend to use the term “bullying” far too loosely, instead of reserving it for the most egregious behaviors. In my research studying teens at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC), I found that for each legitimate use of the word, two to three subjects misused it to refer to minor or transient mean acts, or fights between friends. Bullying isn’t any action that hurts; it’s a sustained campaign of abuse by a more powerful peer against a target who cannot defend themselves. As such, it’s uniquely damaging. But by mislabeling so much behavior as “bullying,” we’re invoking the gravitas of the law in response to every small childhood skirmish. No wonder we sometimes feel that such laws accomplish little except for legislative overkill.

Laws are also often valued for their role in pre-emptive deterrence, but applying that logic to school-aged children is questionable at best. Students often aren’t aware of the existence of specific laws, and even if they do know about them, they frequently view laws as relevant to adults, not children. Deterrence only impacts those who know there is a law and who can consider the long-term consequences of disobedience.

I’ve criticized bullying prevention laws here as being applied to vaguely defined behaviors, and also unlikely to deter bullying. But there may be important benefits resulting from such laws, depending upon their specific content. Laws that mandate education, for example, can help mitigate the chronic overuse of the terms bullying and cyberbullying, and there is evidence that such education may even decrease bullying incidents. In my home state of Massachusetts, where there is such a mandate, we’ve found that children do seem to be improving their accurate use of the words bullying and cyberbullying. For example, In 2010 (before the law was enacted), 24% of the children MARC surveyed didn’t know what the word “cyberbullying” specifically referred to. But by 2012, that percentage had dropped dramatically to only 10%. The percentage of children identifying themselves as victims of bullying also dropped dramatically in those years. That drop was probably due both to a real decrease (similarly noted in other studies) and to fewer students erroneously using the terms bullying and cyberbullying.

But apart from increasing education, and apparently reducing the problems of overuse, I think that laws do matter for other, more significant reasons. The broadest social perspective suggests that it’s through the laws we pass that we focus attention on the most important issues in our society. A law about a social problem imbues it with importance. Adults who otherwise may not have considered bullying or cyberbullying an important problem might reconsider when a law is passed. An educator, newly trained under a law compelling such training, might begin to recognize the impact of more contemporary sorts of abusiveness (such as cyberbullying). A parent who had previously dismissed a child’s aggressive behaviors as a “phase” might be motivated to take another look.

So perhaps if these laws make a difference, it’s not by specific deterrence so much as by bringing problems to the front and center of our attention. Perhaps these laws are really about legislating the morality of adults, rather than the morality of children themselves. Bullying prevention laws help children, but they do so indirectly—by compelling adults to take the time to talk, discuss, and connect with children about social behaviors. And several studies (including some at MARC) have now found that it’s through those relationships—and that education and awareness—that children learn both how to avoid bullying and cyberbullying, and how to cope with them successfully, should they happen.

About the Author: Elizabeth Kandel Englander is a professor of psychology and the founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, which delivers anti-violence and anti-bullying programs, resources, and research for the state of Massachusetts. She is the author of Bullying and Cyberbulling: What Every Educator Needs to Know (Harvard Education Press, 2013).