CSON Professor Developing New Screening Method for Detecting Early Signs of Bullying

In order to prevent the potentially lifelong consequences of bullying, CSON Professor Judith Vessey and her team of undergraduate research students are in the process of developing a short primary healthcare screen to detect early signs of bullying in children.

Professor Vessey’s project seeks to alert healthcare professionals during the early stages of bullying, so that they may address and alleviate the bullying before it has the time to permanently impact the psychologies of the victims, who are mostly adolescents.

The first step in the research process was interviewing focus groups of 10-15 year olds about difficult topics (ie. Are you being bullied?) and their preferred methods of screening (ie. on paper or iPad, not face-to-face). Now, they are moving on to focus groups of healthcare and school professionals—school counselors, teachers, principals, doctors, nurses, social workers, etc.—so that they can ultimately pool the information together and form a long list of items based on the two groups’ responses.

After sending this long list to bullying experts across the nation for review, using a Delphi study, they will statistically determine which questions come to the top and refine the list. Finally, once a group of kids has been gathered to participate in the study, they will analyze the data, theoretically ending the project. The research and development is expected to be completed by the Spring of 2017, when Professor Vessey and her team will then begin to formally test the screen.

Professor Vessey’s project has been years in the making. In the mid-90’s, Professor Vessey was researching how to teach children with chronic conditions about how to better manage their conditions and found that the “healthy” control group, not the groups with chronic conditions, reported the most cases of teasing. She says, “From the teasing we got into this model for bullying, and then the Columbine shootings happened and they were very clear that bullying was an antecedent.”

Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, schools have implemented mandatory bullying prevention programs that emphasize primary prevention: stopping bullying before it ever occurs. Yet, these programs are only modestly effective. Although they have increased awareness about the definition and impact of bullying, they haven’t decreased the incidence of bullying, particularly since the advent of social media and the Internet has made cyberbullying easy and anonymous.

According to Professor Vessey, “The problem is that we’re still not detecting kids at the beginning periods of time when they’re being bullied; we’re seeing them when they have a lot of either physical or psychological sequelae, and a lot of those kids end up in the healthcare system.”

However, the healthcare sector has lacked in its response to bullying in that nurse practitioners and doctors are not really asking kids about bullying, even though, as Professor Vessey says, “A whole gamut of psychosocial and mental health problems have pretty direct ties back to bullying.” Psychosomatic illnesses, anxiety and depression, and suicide attempts are all often repercussions of past and present bullying. Thus, a screen to detect early signs of bullying would give doctors and nurse practitioners the opportunity to intervene in order to prevent such outcomes.

For students who would like more information about detecting and addressing bullying, www.stopbullying.gov offers a wide range of helpful resources.

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