School bullying in Israel has dropped by some 40% since the mid-1990s, new research published this week shows. The study, published in the International Journal of Public Health, compares incidents of school bullying among students aged 11-15 in 21 countries between 1994 and 2006.
In contrast to popular notions, the study's researchers found a significant drop in bullying - which was defined as stronger schoolchildren picking on weaker ones. A similar trend was found across Europe, with the exception of Britain and Ireland, where school bullying reportedly increased.
The research was based on identical questionnaires handed out to students of three ages: 11, 13 and 15 years old. Each age group included 1,500 students in each of the 21 countries. The findings indicate that in 1994, 62 percent of boys and 33 percent of girls in Israel said they bullied other children; 62 percent of boys and 45 percent of girls said they had been bullied by others. In 2006, only 40 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls said they were bullying others, while 40 percent of boys and 27 percent of girls said they were bullied.
"There's always a difference between what is actually happening and the headlines," said Dr. Michal Molcho, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway, who led the research team. "The headlines are often a lot more bleak."
The research did not look into the reasons for the drop in bullying, but Molcho believes "one of the reasons is that violent behavior is stopped earlier today. I think there is a lot more awareness of violence among teachers." She added, however, that the research investigated a particular kind of violence - one that repetitively targets a certain student with physical assault, verbal violence and ostracism.
"There had never been findings supporting the claim that there was a sharp rise in violence," said Dr. Yossi Harel-Fisch of Bar-Ilan University's international youth well-being and health program, who conducted the research in Israel. "There's more public awareness, the system became more sensitive, and the police open cases on bullies more quickly."
"In this particular research, we see a very nice drop in violence in Israel," he said. "Although the drop was also due to a slight change to the research questions, there is genuine improvement that cannot be dismissed. The greatest drop was recorded in bullying, but if you look across the field at different kinds of violence, there's a more general drop, especially in high schools."
Many Western states view school bullying as an epidemic, and awareness of the phenomenon and its implications has been growing over the past few years. "Children exposed to bullying can develop relationship problems later on in life, and this includes both the bullied and the bully. A bullying pattern of behavior is often set," Molcho said.
About a year ago, the Israel State Comptroller published a report accusing the Education Ministry of failing to tackle the issue and calling to set up a special department to combat bullying. The comptroller report was based on a nationwide survey that found 58% of Israeli students had been bullied in the preceding month.
Harel-Fisch said the new findings were encouraging, but it was too soon to celebrate. "We'd like to see a much bigger drop. We're still not ranked at a very good standing in general school violence."
He noted that other destructive behavior was on the rise. "Alcohol abuse is skyrocketing. Our sixth-graders rank second in Europe for moderate alcohol consumption."
Harel-Fisch also criticized overly disciplinarian anti-violence programs. "For the children, it's only external forces pressuring them to make a different behavioral decision. But if there is no internalization process, you're treating the symptoms, not the problem - and as soon as the disciplinarian isn't there, the student will revert to violence."
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