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Some school anti-bullying programs may do more harm than good

New QIMR Berghofer analysis of research on school anti-bullying programs has concluded that programs that encourage bystanders to intervene may inadvertently harm the children they are aimed at protecting.

Lead author and psychologist Dr Karyn Healy from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute’s Child and Youth Mental Health Group reviewed leading international research on the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs over the past decade.

She said global research showed that bullying prevention programs overall result in about a 20 per cent reduction in bullying in schools and a 15 per cent drop in victimisation. However, in secondary schools the average benefit was zero.

“Unfortunately, this means that programs in high schools are just as likely to make bullying worse as they are to reduce bullying,” Dr Healy said.

“Different types of strategies have different results. However, this has been difficult for researchers to tease out as most programs involve multiple strategies. More research is needed to understand more about what works and what doesn’t.”

Dr Healy said the complexity of most programs and the inclusion of several elements could explain why it was difficult to pinpoint what was not working.

Most programs incorporate many different elements including the introduction of a whole-school anti-bullying policy, student lessons, improved discipline, playground monitoring, training for staff and parents, and work with bullies, victims, or peer bystanders.

Dr Healy said research showed the most effective anti-bullying programs focus on improving behaviour management, improved playground supervision, and parent involvement.

“However a lot of current programs focus on involving peer bystanders to get involved in bullying, which has not been shown to reduce bullying. A summary study showed that, overall, programs that encourages uninvolved bystanders to get involved was associated with significant increases in victimisation,” she said.

“Having lots of peers involved makes the situation more public, which can be damaging to the social reputation of victims. Having a trained bystander step in also prevents the victim from handling a situation themselves, and may make them look weak in the eyes of the bully.

“Getting peers involved in helping resolve bullying has an intuitive appeal. However, we now have some evidence, which shows that at least some of these programs make bullying worse, which can add to the distress of victims.

“Students who want to step in shouldn’t be discouraged, but the research suggests students should not be actively trained to intervene, because there is no evidence this works, and some evidence this may, in some cases, cause harm.”

Dr Healy, who has specialised in school-based bullying for 25 years, said although not every program that encouraged peer involvement made bullying worse, caution was needed in selecting programs that were proven to help.

“Unfortunately the findings from the research haven’t as yet been picked up by anti-bullying program providers, schools or governments, many of which continue to endorse programs that encourage peers to get involved and attempt to resolve situations of bullying,” she said.

“Until we know a specific program that encourages peer bystanders is helpful for victims, we need to exercise caution.

“It’s important that decision makers at school and government levels ensure the programs they initiate in schools are backed up by evidence-based research. This means only using programs that have been specifically and carefully evaluated. Just because it sounds like a good idea doesn’t mean it will necessarily help. It could make things a whole lot worse for some victims.

“We have come a long way in identifying the mental health challenges caused by bullying, and accepting the need for programs to educate children, parents and teachers of the dangers. Now, we need to ensure we put in place programs and practices that help rather than harm victims.”

The study findings have been published in the journal Child Development Perspectives.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare bullying refers to any intentional and repeated behaviour which causes physical, emotional or social harm to a person who has, or is perceived to have, less power than the person who bullies.