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Kids bullied each other less during the pandemic. Here’s how we keep it that way

Smaller class sizes and teacher oversight on Zoom helped reduce the opportunities for abuse among school-age kids in Canada, a new study finds.

Kids bullied each other less during the pandemic. Here’s how we keep it that way
[Photo: August de Richelieu/Pexels]
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Despite the duress many kids suffered during the pandemic and anecdotal reports about an upswing in bullying, a new study indicates that bullying among students was down in the last year. The decrease is likely due to the way that schools transitioned to online learning and hybrid formats, where students spent sometime in classrooms and sometime working from home. That resulted in reduced class sizes to accommodate socially distant learning. The findings confirm what experts already knew: small class sizes and increased teacher oversight reduces the opportunity for abusive behavior. Because of the pandemic, they say, schools now have an opportunity to keep bullying down going forward.

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The study took place among 6,578 students in grades 4 through 12 across several different schools in Southern Ontario, Canada. Prior to the pandemic, nearly 60% of students reported being bullied. That figure dropped to less than 40% during the pandemic. Conversely, nearly a quarter of students admitted to bullying other students before the pandemic, while during the pandemic only 13% did so.

What changed? For schools that opted for a mix of in-person and online learning, class sizes were smaller. Teachers were also more present in hallways to make sure students were keeping socially distant. In general, there was less opportunity for student interaction and more oversight from adults. “We’ve long known that supervision decreases bullying,” says Tracy Vaillancourt, professor at University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair in School-Based Mental Health and Violence Prevention, who led the study. The pandemic forced schools to test that theory, she says.

The study stands in contrast to anecdotal media reports from teachers who felt that bullying had increased last year. Vaillancourt says bullying may have been more apparent, but based on her study and reports from UNICEF, it did not actually grow in volume. Why then do teachers feel like bullying is on the rise? “They see it more,” says Vaillancourt. Bullying often happens in places that teachers can’t see, like in the hallway between classes, she says. On Zoom, teachers are more privy to student interactions: “Let’s say I’m a teacher and I’m teaching remotely, or I’m a parent—I can see what’s happening in the chat room,” she says. Even so, students reported that even cyberbullying went down slightly.

Students experience bullying at roughly the same rate in Canada and the U.S., according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment. Roughly a quarter of North American students report experiencing bullying a few times a month. Historically, Canada has had higher rates of bullying than the U.S., though the two countries have become more comparable in recent years.

The key to keeping student bullying in check is to retain the small class sizes and strong oversight, says Vaillancourt. Even putting teachers in the hallway during class transitions could help bring bullying down. There is also a roll for remote learning, she says. Though she found through her research that students who received their learning online felt less valued by both other students and their teachers, she says that there are other students who could benefit immensely from a more flexible educational format.

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“Online is good for kids who aren’t managing the school system,” says Vaillancourt. “Child psychologists will tell you there are a lot of children and youth who don’t attend school because of mental health issues and because of bullying.” For those students, she says, schools should consider offering remote learning. “The nice thing about the pandemic is we realized we could get this done,” she says. “It was a forced innovation.” 

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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