An Unexpected Benefit of Social Distancing

While the pandemic has presented students with plenty of challenges, it's also resulted in lower rates of bullying. Where do we go from here?


While pandemic-related disruptions to education have posed difficulties for Canadian children, a new study has found a silver lining.

Students in grades 4 to 12 reported far lower rates of bullying during the pandemic than before, indicating that some of the measures adopted to curb the coronavirus’s spread could also help to prevent bullying.

The study was led by Tracy Vaillancourt, professor and Canada Research Chair in School-Based Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa, and published in Aggressive Behavior.

Bullying is a major problem in Canada: 47% of Canadian parents reported having a child bullied prior to the pandemic, and 50% of students who identified as visible minorities have been victims of racial-based bullying.

While social distancing protocols might be expected to lessen the rates of bullying among children — after all, a great deal of bullying does take place face-to-face — longer periods of screen time could mean more opportunities for cyber bullying. Most Canadian children have also been back to in-person learning for many months, though with new safety measures that could impact previous social dynamics.

Given all this, Vaillancourt and her colleagues were interested in learning whether bullying patterns had changed. They anonymously surveyed thousands of Ontario students in grades 4 to 12 about their experiences with bullying, and compared their results to similar surveys that had been undertaken prior to the pandemic.

The authors note that the educational changes in Ontario were similar to other provinces in Canada. In particular, children from kindergarten to grade 8 were given the option to learn in-person or virtually, while high school students switched to an adapted in-person model with fewer students per class and fewer days per week spent in the classroom. Across all ages, teachers also supervised their students more closely than before to ensure that students were following social distancing protocols.

By comparing the survey results from before and during the pandemic, the authors found a significant reduction in general, physical, verbal, and social bullying across all grades, with reported rates dropping from 60% to 40%. They also found a decrease in the rates of cyber bullying, but noted that this difference was less pronounced than other forms.

In cases where bullying did occur, the authors found similar trends to previous studies. Girls were more likely to report being bullied than boys, while gender diverse and LGBTQ+ students were bullied at higher rates than students who identified as gender binary or heterosexual.

While more work will be needed to understand the impact of these educational reforms on students’ academic performance and mental health, the authors believe some of the changes could be adapted to post-pandemic learning in order to foster interpersonal relationships and inform bullying reduction practices.

“Reducing bullying is important because it negatively affects all aspects of functioning, both in the immediate and in the long-term,” Vaillancourt said in a press release.

“Given the strikingly lower rates of bullying during the pandemic, we should seriously consider retaining some of the educational reforms used to reduce the spread of COVID-19 such as reducing class sizes and increasing supervision.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.