06/19/2012 01:41 EDT | Updated 08/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Experts embrace Ontario anti-bullying law, call for national strategy

TORONTO - Some of Canada's leading experts on bullying are calling for a national strategy to address an "epidemic," which they say not only affects children's psychological well-being and academic performance but also their DNA.

According a recent study by an international alliance of researchers in collaboration with the World Health Organization, 17 per cent of 11-year-old girls in Canada report being bullied at least twice in the past few months. That puts Canada at sixth place out of 38 countries for highest rate of bullying among girls of that age.

Wendy Craig, a professor from Queen's University who was involved in the study, told a conference in Toronto on Tuesday that bullying is a public health problem because of its prevalence.

The researchers said children who are exposed to frequent bullying and domestic violence show premature erosion of the telomeres— DNA found at the end of chromosomes, offering protection as cells continuously divide throughout a person's life.

Debra Pepler, a psychology professor at York University, said these DNA changes demonstrate just how harmful bullying is.

"It's not just in children's behaviour, it's not just in what you see," said Pepler. "It's much deeper, in terms of the cellular level, in terms of their DNA, in brain structure, brain architecture, brain responsivity, and it's all in response to stress that children have in their lives."

Bullying has become a hot topic in Ontario, where the legislature passed a bill earlier this month that allows students to form gay-straight alliances and seeks to protect kids from being harassed by their peers at school.

The legislation passed a few months after a 13-year-old boy was acquitted of robbing and assaulting 11-year-old Mitchell Wilson in a high-profile bullying case that garnered widespread attention. Wilson, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, killed himself last September.

Experts say they embrace Ontario's new legislation, but it remains to be seen how the policy will be enacted.

"[The new law] sets a tone by putting into policy that we have to be respectful and accepting," said Craig. "We need to do better at bridging the gap between policy and practice."

Staff working in schools should be given more resources and knowledge to help them identify bullying and properly intervene, said Craig.

She also said schools need to use evidence-based anti-bullying approaches that are connected to the community, because bullying can also take place outside of school — such as over the Internet or during sports practices.

A national strategy could provide funds and create more consistency in the messages that children receive, said Craig.

Ken Jeffers, a co-ordinator for the Toronto District School Board's gender-based violence prevention program, said name-calling and sexual harassment in schools has become so common that it's fading into the background.

"When that persists, when that is allowed to become just background noise, students push those boundaries," said Jeffers. "This kind of evidence shows us that when those interventions don't happen, far more aggressive sexualized behaviour becomes the norm."

In order to be successful, anti-bullying programs should focus on prevention as well as responding to incidents, said Jeffers. They should also be uniquely tailored to the community.

"I really do believe that policy can shift power," said Jeffers. "Of course, it has to have compliance and accountability components to it, but it gives you an opportunity."