Less bullying at school during the COVID-19 pandemic, study finds

Posted on Thursday, July 8, 2021

Kids outside of school, wearing masks

The 2020-2021 school year was particularly disruptive for students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it may also have had some benefits, including mitigating bullying at school, according to a University of Ottawa study.

The study surveyed 6,578 Ontario students in grades 4 to 12. The results revealed that students reported much higher rates of all forms of bullying at school (general, physical, verbal, and social) before the COVID-19 pandemic than during the pandemic. There is only one exception and that is for cyberbullying, where differences in rates were less pronounced.

The study also confirmed these previously known patterns:

  • Girls were more likely to report being bullied than boys. 
  • Boys were more likely to report bullying others than girls.
  • Elementary school students reported higher bullying involvement than secondary school students. 
  • Gender diverse and LGTBQ+ students reported being bullied at higher rates than students who identified as gender binary or heterosexual. 

To learn more, we talked to Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, Full Professor at the University of Ottawa, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in School-Based Mental Health and Violence Prevention, and lead author of the paper “School Bullying Before and During COVID-19: Results from a Population-Based Randomized Designpublished in the journal Aggressive Behavior.

Were you surprised by the reduction of bullying during the pandemic?

“We were not surprised by the direction of the findings but were surprised by the magnitude. That is, we did not expect the pre-pandemic and pandemic prevalence rates to be so different.”

“It’s important to note that we only looked at Ontario students and we examined this during the beginning of this school year when schools were not closed. It would be ideal to compare our rates to those of other provinces to see how they hold up.”

 Percentage of students involved in bullying before and during COVID-19 pandemic.

Percentage of students involved in bullying before and during COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: University of Ottawa

How do you explain those results?

“The measures taken to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and the increases in virtual learning likely had an impact on bullying rates. Students in Ontario were in smaller cohorts, they interacted with each other less, and they were more closely supervised. They also had fewer interactions with peers outside of school which may have helped reduce rates as well. Simply put, students likely had less opportunity to be involved in bullying.”

The study also shows that differences in cyberbullying rates are less pronounced. Why is that?

“I think differences for cyberbullying were less pronounced because most interactions between students occurred virtually. Still, the rates for cyberbullying were lower during the pandemic than before the pandemic. Cyberbullying is often a spillover of other types of bullying and so when other forms decline so should cyberbullying.”

What can we learn from this study? How can we keep bullying down at school?

“I would love to see a greater investment in student supervision – and I don’t mean more cameras or police officers in schools. I mean more adults available to supervise breaks and recesses, as well as classroom transitions.”

“Bullying causes significant harm to targets and so we really need to prioritize the reduction of bullying. Our next study is to examine the experiences of educators who have told me on many occasions that they have never been treated this poorly in their career. I suspect for educators, we will find the opposite pattern than what we found for students.”

For media inquiries:
Justine Boutet
Media Relations Officer
University of Ottawa
Cell: 613.762.2908

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