Do Anti-Bullying Laws Affect Youth Mental Health?

Monday, June 24, 2019: 3:45 PM
Jefferson - Mezzanine Level (Marriott Wardman Park Hotel)

Presenter: Joseph Sabia

Discussant: Erik Nesson

Approximately one-quarter of all school-aged children report being bullied, with higher rates among historically marginalized populations such as LGB or transgender teenagers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as ‘unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, and the behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated.’ Bullying can be verbal in nature or it can be physical. Some forms of bullying can even constitute criminal assault. Bullying victimization (and even perpetration) is positively associated with the risk of depression as well as the risk of suicide idealization. However, because these associations could be due to difficult-to-observe factors at the individual, school, or community level, they are arguably of limited use to policymakers. For example, if victims of bullying are targeted by bullies because they are already at higher risk for psychological stress—because they come from particular family backgrounds or face uncertain futures due to diminished opportunities—then the estimated relationship between bullying victimization and mental health may be biased. Hence, there is a need to understand the causal effect of bullying on mental health to allow for effective policy development.

In response to the potential social costs, policymakers have taken steps to address the issue of bullying in schools. Between 2000 and 2017, 50 states and DC adopted anti-bullying laws (ABLs). These laws appear to be effective in deterring school bullying (Sabia and Bass 2015; Hatzenbuehler et al. 2015). However, next to nothing is known about law effects on teenagers’ thinking about, planning, attempting, or completing suicide. This study helps to address this important gap in the literature. In particular, it estimates the effects of ABLs on suicide-related outcomes among high school students. Considered outcomes include: regularly feeling hopeless, and suicide idealization, planning, attempt, and injury. Data are drawn from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey on high school students ages 13 to 18 over the period 1991 to 2017. This time period overlaps the staggered roll out of ABLs across U.S. states, offering a novel quasi-experiment with which to study law effects. Differences-in-differences and event-study models that account for a range of state-level characteristics are applied to estimate the reduced form relationship between ABLs and suicide-related outcomes. Further, in an instrumental variable framework, using ABLs as an instrument for bullying, the causal effect of bulling on suicide-related outcomes is explored.

Findings from this study suggest that passage of an ABL decreases (1) school bullying experiences, and (2) suicide-related outcomes. Instrumental variable models document that bullying increases suicide-related outcomes. These findings confirm that school bullying causally harms mental health, and suggest that state regulations have the ability to reduce school bullying experiences and improve mental health outcomes among youth.