Do Bullying Laws Help?

I returned recently from Iowa, where the Governor and other stakeholders met to discuss the state’s bullying prevention efforts. In South Carolina, a new law forbids the cyberbullying of teachers and educators. According to BullyPolice.Org, 49 States now have laws pertaining to bullying prevention. But how much do laws really matter?

It’s often said that laws cannot dictate morality, and that’s true. Certainly laws can’t make all children understand that being cruel to others is wrong. Can laws force children to stop bullying others? That doesn’t seem very likely, as most children probably don’t even know what laws exist. The idea of “deterrence” – stopping people from misbehaving because of their fear of the law, or its punishments – may not apply to children who don’t know there is a law or who can’t take a long enough view to consider the consequences down the road.

But I think that laws do matter for other reasons. It’s through the laws we pass that we focus attention on the most important issues in our society. Adults who otherwise may not have considered bullying or cyberbullying an important problem might reconsider when a law is passed.

In Massachusetts, we can see that the law has made a difference. While some states only require that schools have policies about bullying, in several states (including Massachusetts) the law mandates education and training about bullying and cyberbullying, and that education appears to be making a difference. First, children seem to just know more facts about bullying. In 2010, 24% of the children MARC surveyed didn’t know what the word “cyberbullying” meant. But by 2012, that percentage had dropped to only 10%. Also, more elementary-aged children are reporting to others when bullying or cyberbullying happen. Sometimes they report to parents, sometimes to educators, and sometimes to friends and peers, but the rate of reporting increased between 2010 and 2012. The only group that shrank in size were the children who didn’t report to anyone.

I also found that education was related to being either a bully or a cyberbully. When children reported going through more education, they weren’t as likely to also say that they had bullied or cyberbullied other children. For example, the children who were repeatedly cruel to their peers on the Internet were the least likely group to report that their class in school had gone through bullying and cyberbullying education.

So perhaps if laws make a difference, it’s by bringing problems to the front and center of our attention. And it’s that increase in awareness that drives our other actions, like providing education, and talking to children about bullying and cyberbullying. Ultimately, that’s how we’ve tackled some of the biggest difficulties we’ve faced when raising children, and hopefully we’ll be able to do so again.