In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, a national survey of students reported a rise in bullying incidents, as well as an increase in hate messages and harassment.
A survey of teachers by the Southern Poverty Law Center found a similar post-election jump in bullying, specifically incidents involving “students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates.”
The center’s officials called the phenomenon the “Trump effect.”
But not all evidence has pointed to such an effect. A 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that although one in five students aged 12 through 18 said they had been bullied by their peers, the rate of student-reported bullying was not statistically higher in 2017 than in 2015.
It’s important, of course, that we understand what causes bullying. In recent years, the medical community has begun to recognize bullying as a serious health concern. Students who are bullied are, for example, more likely to experience depression, anxiety and other long-term mental health problems than their non-bullied peers. They are also at increased risk of suicide.
Bullying can lead to physical symptoms as well, especially headaches, stomachaches and fatigue. Not surprisingly, students who are bullied tend to miss more school than their peers, a factor that can contribute to poorer academic performance.
A single-state study
To get a better sense of just what the “Trump effect” may or may not be, Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, and Francis Huang, a statistician at the University of Missouri, conducted an intriguing study of post-election bullying trends in one state, Virginia.
They published their findings last week in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
For the study, Cornell and Huang analyzed data collected from more than 155,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students who participated in Virginia’s biennial “school climate” survey for the years 2013, 2015 and 2017.
The survey, which is done during the spring months, includes questions about teasing and bullying. Students were asked not only if they personally had been bullied at school within the previous year, but also if they had witnessed it happening to others. They were also asked to identify whether the bullying had been related to a student’s race and/or ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical appearance.
Cornell and Huang mapped the students’ responses to voting preferences for each school district’s locality. They also controlled for several other differences among communities, such as socioeconomic status, population density and racial diversity.
A link to voting preferences
The analysis revealed some startling findings. The overall bullying rates reported by students during the spring of 2017 were 18 percent higher, on average, in communities in Virginia that had voted for President Trump than in communities that had favored Hillary Clinton.
Furthermore, the 2017 rates for race- and ethnic-based teasing were 9 percent higher, on average, in the communities that voted for Trump than in those that went to Clinton.
No meaningful differences were found between the communities, however, for bullying related to sexual orientation or physical appearance.
Each 10 percent increase in voter support for Trump within a community was associated with an 8 percent increase in student-reported bullying and a 5 percent increase in student-reported race- or ethnic-based teasing.
The study found no significant differences, however, in bullying rates between Republican and Democratic-leaning communities in 2013 or 2015. In fact, student-reported bullying appeared to be on the decline during those years.
“We found consistent differences in teasing and bullying rates that were linked to voting preferences,” said Huang in a released statement. “While our findings do not indicate that support for Trump caused bullying to increase in Republican districts, they do provide some credence to the widespread perception that some types of teasing and bullying have increased, at least in some localities.”
Limitations and implications
The study’s findings are correlational and so cannot establish a direct causal relationship between the 2016 presidential election and a rise in student-reported school bullying.
It’s possible, Huang and Cornell note, “that teasing and bullying has not changed as much in prevalence as in content. Bullies may have switched from standard taunts and hurtful jibes to election-related taunts and jibes that draw more attention.”
Still, the findings appear to support concerns by teachers and others about a rise in bullying aimed at racial and ethnic minorities following the 2016 presidential election.
The findings may also explain why the CDC found no increase in bullying in its 2017 student survey.
“If prevalence rates increased in some localities but decreased in others, there might be no overall change,” write Huang and Cornell in their paper.
A ‘compelling’ finding
The two researchers say further research is needed to determine whether a causal link exists between the words and behavior of President Trump and student bullying.
In the meantime, parents and other adults to be aware that public events can have a profound impact on young people’s behavior, the researchers say.
“It would be far too simplistic to think that candidate Trump or President-elect Trump said something, and that directly influenced middle school kids to engage in bullying,” Cornell told a reporter for Education Week. “It’s much more likely that it was an indirect, broader effect involving more of a societal change: more people expressing more hostile views, being less concerned about the impact of their statements on other people, and kids picking that up from the media and maybe from their parents or other adults.”
“The fact that we could see it consistently in a statistically reliable manner across hundreds of schools, I think that’s what makes it compelling,” he added.
FMI: You’ll find the study at the Educational Researcher website.