Introduction: Bullying is a widely prevalent public health and safety issue that can have serious long-term consequences for youth. Given the limited efficacy of traditional bullying prevention programs, a need exists for novel, theoretically informed, prevention programming. Construal Level Theory provides a useful framework. Methods: This study evaluated a pseudo-randomized pilot trial of a virtual reality enhanced bullying prevention program among middle school students (N = 118) in the Midwest United States. Two models were proposed. The first predicts reductions in bullying behavior (traditional bullying, cyberbullying, relational aggression) at post-test, mediated by changes in empathy in the virtual reality condition compared to the control condition. The second predicts increases in school belonging and willingness to intervene as an active bystander at post-test, mediated by changes in empathy in the virtual reality condition compared to the control condition. Results: The virtual reality condition yielded increased empathy from pre-to post-intervention compared to the control condition. Through the mediating role of empathy, changes in the desirable directions were also observed for traditional bullying, sense of school belonging, and willingness to intervene as an active bystander, but not for cyberbullying or relational aggression. Conclusions: The scope and practical limitations of the virtual reality trial prevented a larger scale and more rigorous evaluation; however, results justify an expanded examination of virtual reality as a youth violence prevention tool.
- School-based prevention
- Virtual reality