Yuhong Zhu: School bullying in China calls for holistic interventions and prevention

Recently there has been a lot of discussion on social media in China about bullying at school and the effect that it has on children’s mental health. Bullying is emerging as a pressing social issue in China, and the literature provides evidence that bullying is a globally pervasive problem.

Bullying is an extremely difficult life experience, with lasting and serious negative effects on learning and academic achievement, physical health and neurobiology, social relationships, and mental health—not only for those who are bullied, but also for the bullies and those that witness bullying.

The largest area of longitudinal research on bullying is the study of how bullying affects mental health. Considerable evidence shows that early victimisation has been repeatedly related to internalising difficulties (for example, loneliness, withdrawal, emotional problems, somatisation, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation)[1] and externalising behaviours (for example, aggression, delinquency, misconduct, and attention problems)[2].

Given the wide range of immediate and long term negative impacts it has on children’s development, some countries have taken a series of strategies to combat bullying. In the US, for example, since the 1990s, nearly all states have passed laws specifically related to bullying and developed different programmes to prevent bullying in school[3].

In China—alongside the absence of a societal definition—a surveillance system, a mandatory reporting system, and formal procedures for handling bullying cases have not been established yet. This situation has caused difficulties in implementing effective responses to and services for bullying. To overcome these structural constraints we must follow the public health approach, and getting more accurate statistics on the magnitude of bullying in schools will be the first but essential step for officials and experts who advocate preventing this aggressive behaviour across the whole country.

We need to carry out research to identify the risk and protective factors of bullying so that we can better understand its causes, develop screening tools, and have bullying interventions in place. We can then apply the most effective and promising interventions in a wide range of settings, based on the results of monitoring and cost effectiveness analysis. Finally, interdisciplinary collaborations among policy makers, researchers, social work practitioners, and school staff are needed to advocate a zero tolerance approach to bullying and to improve public awareness in China.

Yuhong Zhu is an assistant professor of social work at the School of Sociology and Population Studies, Renmin University of China, Beijing, China. She received her PhD from the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, University of Hong Kong. Her main research interests include child protection, school bullying, and social policy.

Competing interests: None declared.

[1] Reijntjes A, Kamphuis JH, Prinzie P, Telch MJ. Peer victimization and internalizing problems in children: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Child Abuse & Neglect. 2010;34:244–252.

[2] Reijntjes A, Kamphuis JH, Prinzie P, Boelen PA, van der Schoot M, Telch MJ (2011). Prospective linkages between peer victimization and externalizing problems in children: A meta-analysis. Aggressive Behavior. 2011;37: 215–222.

[3] US Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service (USDOE). Analysis of state bullying laws and policies. 2011. Washington, DC: Author retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/bullying/state-bullying-laws/state-bullying-laws.pdf