05/07/2014 11:54 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Do Bullied Youth Really Carry Weapons to School?

Bullying Victims Bring Weapons to School!

So reads the latest headline heralding new research on bullying and weapon carrying. This finding certainly sounds plausible -- we know bullying is a common factor in many school shooting incidents (though, like suicide, bullying alone is likely not causal), but what does the data really say? As a trained researcher, I wanted to dig deeper beyond the news reports and went searching for the study. Imagine my surprise when the only published mention of this research was a 500-word abstract for a conference poster presentation that contains little information about their methodology and statistical analysis, and which has never been reviewed by fellow researchers, i.e. "peer reviewed." Peer review helps ensure that studies' data, methods, and conclusions are valid before entering the research literature and influencing further efforts on a given topic. Without peer review, we must question the findings of this study, especially given other research on this issue that shows quite the opposite -- bullied youth actually decrease their weapon carrying over time.

First and foremost, the authors report that 50 percent of youth participants on the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey administered by the CDC reported being victims of bullying. The CDC's own analyses of this data show a much lower rate at 20 percent. This huge discrepancy no doubt affects the interpretation of these findings. It is also unclear whether the researchers controlled for contextual factors known to influence weapon carrying such as the presence of gangs, overall rates of weapon carrying in particular schools and communities, and previous aggressive behavior. The authors also fail to report gender, race, and grade difference which almost certainly impact weapon carrying rates.

Though theirs may be the first to garner headlines, the authors' assertion that their study is the first to explore the connection between weapon carrying and peer victimization, is simply inaccurate. A 2011 longitudinal study from Dijkstra and colleagues published in the peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Adolescent Health, found that weapon carrying only increased for victims identified by peers as also aggressive. Aggressive youth, generally, were more likely to carry weapons over time. Those who self-identified as victims actually had a reduction in weapon carrying. As Dijkstra and colleagues conclude:

... Weapon carrying as a purely defensive response without engagement in problem behaviors may be uncommon. The finding that peer-reported victimization increased the likelihood of weapon carrying for highly aggressive adolescents underlines that experiences of victimization may prompt weapon carrying only among adolescents with a history of aggression. (pg. 375)

The differences between this published study and the one that made headlines this week are striking, yet no news reports covered the release of Dijkstra's work.

So what can we actually say about the current headlines? Media plays a valuable service in translating bullying research for the general public. Most research is cost prohibitive to access without academic credentials and can be difficult to interpret without a trained eye. Yet, the news is selective about what research it reports, often focusing on those studies that reinforce preconceived notions about bullying and those that may cause scandal, regardless of their validity. For these reasons, we must be critical consumers of all research-turned-news stories. Although peer review cannot guarantee validity in all cases (see, for instance, the since debunked vaccines-cause-autism research, where the research fabricated results) or quality studies and conclusions (see my blog on the "anti-bullying programs don't work" paper), it is at least a clue as to whether a paper is ready to be considered on a wide scale. Do bullied youth carry weapons? I'll wait to read the peer-reviewed paper.

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