by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
Bullying is an increasing problem in society today. Bullying occurs by and against children, by and against adults, and now remotely via electronic mediums such as the internet, mobile phone, social media and text messaging. Being a bully and being bullied have now been firmly linked in studies to a variety of detrimental mental health conditions for both parties.
Children who bully others in childhood are known to go on and develop other more serious anti-social behaviours in teenage and adult life. The bully does not learn boundaries, containment of emotions and impulses, and typically suffers low self esteem, and may go on to be involved in violent crimes, adult bullying and low socio-economic outcomes. Children who are bullied in school years have been shown to create permanent damage that can include low self esteem, ill health, anxiety and depression, falling grades at school, absenteeism, later trust issues as an adult, as well as withdrawal from socializing and relationships.
An Australian study found that a quarter of Australian students reported being bullied “every few weeks or more”. A secret hidden camera at a series of Canadian schools recorded a bullying incident every 7 minutes which lasted on average 38 seconds. Half of the incidents were verbal aggression and intimidation, a third was physical aggression, and the remainder were a combination of both verbal and physical aggression.
In only 4 per cent of incidents was there an adult intervention and in only 11 per cent of cases did other school students intervene. Bullying at this physical and verbal level represents the basic limited ability to overtly control another at the physical level. As soon as the bullying stops the victim regains most of their control even if they are traumatized.
One of the problems with bullying has been that under previous Australian legislation no person under the age of 16 can use sexual harassment laws to pursue their tormentors, and there were no other adequate provisions for legal redress. Many cases of both school and cyber-bullying occur with victims under the age of 16. In 2011 the Australian Government announced it will introduce into Parliament new anti-harassment laws that will give legal protection to young victims of cyber and classroom bullying.
As the bully becomes older they tend to become more sophisticated, unless they are of below par intelligence, or have some mental health issue. In teenage years the bully tends to use more covert and social types of bullying, playing on the insecurities and sensitivities that arise in teenagers as they build their independence and identity.
Apart from the continued verbal and physical bullying, teenage aggression usually involves the intentional disrupting and damaging of the victims social status and self esteem, breaking up their friendships and other social and intimate relationships. Common means to do this is character assassination, gossip, lying, rumours, Facebook and graffiti.
Cyber-Bullying often starts in teenage years and includes the use of the internet, mobile phone photo and texting, internet vandalism and defamation on Facebook and other social media sites. There is evidence emerging now that peer group pressure and teenage relationships are also causing teenagers to indulge in “sexting”, where the person photographs themselves naked or in sexual poses, and text them onto peers.
These images are becoming a later tool for humiliation, blackmail, and bullying, plus possibly being traded or posted onto the internet forever. Cyber-bullying has also become more popular as students are less liable to come under school sanction, and parents are often ignorant of internet technologies or their children’s use of computers and mobile phones, and so cyber-bullying can continue undetected for considerable time.
All forms of bullying are often under-reported by children and teenage victims. This is often the felt sense of shame in many cases, and young victims report that their stories are often not believed, or are minimized, or dismissed by parents as being “part of the school or growing up process”. Teenagers report they fear having their mobile phone or internet access restricted, monitored or removed, feel embarrassed or already alienated from their parents. Teenage suicides are on the rise as a result of bullying and cyber-bullying and so parents and teachers need to take bullying seriously.
Adult bullies were often childhood or teenage bullies. Children raised in families where one or both parents, or an older sibling were bullies, are more likely to have developed a belief system that normalized bullying as an acceptable means of interaction with others. Adult bullying is more likely to take place in workplaces, sporting and social clubs, but awareness of rights, intolerance by other adults, and access to legal sanction reduce the incidence of bullying to more isolated situations.
There have also been other types of bullying such as a teenage student employing cyber-bullying against their teachers and schools via the same techniques already mentioned. Bullying exists also in parliament as a political tactic as well as in sporting settings as tactics to upset opposition players.
Strategies to cope with childhood and teenage bullying of all forms needs to be enacted at the personal, school peer, family, school and internet levels for an effective system of minimizing bullies and bullying. The key ideas as outlined by various advocates are:
- Personal level – Victims need to be taught to report all incidents of bullying without fear of ridicule or disbelief. Learning self-discipline and self-confidence via a martial art or an embodied discipline can resolve victimisation tendencies in the bullied person. Bullies need to be made accountable to the victim and peers when caught bullying, and then counselled for reasons they feel they can act out this way.
- School Peer – Peers need to step in and support the victim and rather than confront the bully, instead refuse to collude with them by passing on the rumours, teasing, or emails. Experience has taught that the refusal to co-operate with bullies and instead showing empathy with the victim, emailing them or giving them face-to-face support, isolates the bully and robs them of their pay-off, and creates a negative outcome they were not anticipating. A school based program to create this school yard culture would be required for this strategy to be enacted.
- Family – Family contracts on responsible behaviour and appropriate internet use can be drawn up and enforced. Families need to respond to incidents of bullying with priority and support for victims. The family of the bully need to take responsibility, priority, accountability and obtain counselling for the bully. Families need to see the bullying behaviour as a cry for help and as a possible sign of possible deeper parental or family dysfunction.
- School – Schools have a duty of care to all students and so need to enact an effective anti-bullying policy which includes education of students, and buy-in from teachers who are the first level of support for victims of bullying.
- Internet – Governments are being asked to consider an internet equivalent of “triple zero” crisis call, where a cyber-bullying victim can easily hit a panic button which takes them to police or counselling groups qualified to intervene and assist victims online and offline.
Parents often struggle with understanding their children’s use of internet and mobile phone technologies. Here are 10 tips from the Australian Government which are useful guidelines in dealing with children’s technology use in the home and school:
- Keep computers in a central place at home and have clear rules about how much time your children can spend online. Do not let children keep computers in their bedroom.
- Play an active part in your child’s life and know your children’s friends, not just their closest friend. Ask about “virtual” friends on the internet.
- Look for signs of bullying such as sudden loss of interest in going to school, not wanting to spend time with friends, feeling miserable, difficulty sleeping or a general drop in school performance.
- Learn how to access the internet on the computer and sign up for a course if you are not familiar with computers.
- Talk with your children regularly about what they are doing on-line and shoulder surf to watch and monitor their behaviour.
- Learn the privacy settings and parental controls on your home computer.
- If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour online, Google their name to see where it might be mentioned or setup a Google alert to notify you when anything about your child is posted online.
- If your child is being cyber-bullied then inform the Internet Service Provider(ISP) about the abuse.
- Talk with your children about keeping their passwords private and their mobile phone safe so that no one can steal your child’s identity to bully others.
- Work closely with the school if your child is being bullied or cyber-bullied.
Other additional tips include:
- Establish family guidelines for use of the internet and mobile phones.
- Lead by example. Children mirror and adopt adult behaviour so be aware what they see as “normal”.
- Become involved in children’s online activities.
- Internet usage and computer games excite the brain and so will prevent children being able to sleep. Do not let children use computers just before bedtime.
- Do not let children access adult social networking sites using an adult account.
- Check the school internet usage policy and explain it to your children so they understand what it means.
- Keep your computer up to date with patches, updates and security software and firewalls.
Whether you or someone you know has suffered bullying or cyber-bullying as an adult or as a child, or you are a bully or cyber-bully, help is now available from us.