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MONDAY, Oct. 5, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- States that get tough on bullies by enacting anti-bullying laws appear to reduce bullying and cyberbullying among high school students, a new study suggests.
Among 25 states that adopted at least one component of the U.S. Department of Education guidelines on bullying in their anti-bullying laws, 24 percent saw lower odds of bullying, the researchers found. In addition, these states saw 20 percent lower odds of cyberbullying, the study revealed.
"This research is important because it gives us a sense that anti-bullying legislation works," said lead researcher Mark Hatzenbuehler, co-director of the Center for the Study of Social Inequalities and Health at Columbia University in New York City.
While this study found a link between lower rates of bullying and cyberbullying in states with anti-bullying laws, the study's design doesn't allow it to prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
But this research does set the stage for future studies that can pinpoint which laws, and which combinations of laws, are most effective, Hatzenbuehler said.
Although laws alone won't fix the problem, they are a necessary part of the solution, he added. "Anti-bullying policies are an important part of a comprehensive strategy for preventing bullying among youth," he said.
The report was published online Oct. 5 in JAMA Pediatrics.
One in five U.S. high school students has been bullied during the past 12 months, according to background information in the study.
Forty-nine states currently have anti-bullying laws, Hatzenbuehler said. Montana is the only exception.
For the study, researchers reviewed data on more than 63,000 high school students. The teens came from both public and private high schools. Students from 25 U.S. states were included in the study.
The investigators then matched this information to anti-bullying guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education and state laws on bullying.
The researchers looked at 16 components in four categories. These included: definitions of the anti-bullying policy; the school districts' policy development and review; mandated procedures to deal with bullying; and strategies for communication, training and legal support.
"This research uncovered specific components of anti-bullying laws that were most effective in reducing bullying and cyberbullying," Hatzenbuehler said.
"For example, laws were particularly effective if they included a description of how bullying is defined and where the legislation applies," he said.
Rates of bullying and cyberbullying varied by state, the study found. The state with the lowest rate of bullying (among those studied) was Alabama with just 14 percent of teens reporting bullying in the past year. South Dakota had the highest bullying rates at nearly 27 percent, the study found.
Slightly more than 15 percent of teens reported cyberbullying during the past year. Again, Alabama had the lowest rate, with 12 percent of teens reporting cyberbullying. And South Dakota had the highest rates at nearly 20 percent, the study said.
Todd Herrenkohl, a professor of social work at the University of Washington in Seattle, said, "This study offers an important perspective on the role of anti-bullying laws in preventing self-reported bullying behaviors among high school students."
The study is one of the first to examine this issue systematically and the findings are convincing, he said.
"However, anti-bullying laws by themselves are insufficient to address this enduring problem," Herrenkohl said.
State laws are important to the extent that state laws increase awareness of the problem and lead to action, he said. But proven prevention and intervention programs are also essential, Herrenkohl suggested.
"Enforcing policies and aligning those policies with proven programs is critical and invariably more difficult than developing broad mandates," Herrenkohl said.
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SOURCES: Mark Hatzenbuehler, Ph.D., co-director, Center for the Study of Social Inequalities and Health, Columbia University, New York City; Todd Herrenkohl, Ph.D., professor, social work, University of Washington, Seattle; Oct. 5, 2015, JAMA Pediatrics, online