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The prevalence of bullying in New Zealand schools remains disappointingly high. Studies conducted in the last ten years suggest that between 50 – 75% of teenagers report having been subjected to bullying at school.
No single factor puts a child at risk of being bullied or bullying others. Bullying can happen, and does, anywhere – cities, suburbs, or rural towns; large schools or small schools.
Bullying has many definitions but most include three essential components. Bullying occurs when a person is the target of any behaviour that is:
1. Harmful or done with intent to harm;
2. Repeated or occurs over time; and is
3. Characterised by an imbalance of power, such that the victim does not feel he or she can stop the interaction.
Bullying does not include arguments or disagreements; disliking someone; one-off acts of spite or nastiness; or random acts of intimidation or aggression.
The types of behaviour characteristic of bullying vary. It may be physical. For example hitting, kicking, pinching, pushing, tripping or damaging the victim’s property. Emotional or psychological bullying involves verbal acts such as name calling, insults, racist or homophobic remarks; social exclusion such as being left out, not spoken to and avoided; and other tactics designed to manipulate or intimidate the victim such as stalking.
It is not uncommon for victims of bullying to not tell parents or teachers what is happening to them for a variety of reasons, so it isn’t always easy to know if bullying is affecting your child. However, there are usually some warning signs that your child is being bullied or may be bullying others.
Cyber-bullying is a recent phenomena made possible by recent technological advancements. It has been defined as “any wilful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other technological devices.” Through such technology, the bully now has the opportunity to reach his or her victim remotely, most commonly through email, text messaging, internet chat rooms and social networking sites such as facebook. Cyber-bullying is essentially a mechanism by which emotional or psychological abuse is facilitated.
Bullying in ‘cyberspace’ can include:
Even when offending messages and images are removed from the site they were originally posted to, the nature of the internet is such that complete deletion is rarely achievable – material can rapidly spread and be copied and viewed by anyone across the globe.
Research in the UK has shown that because cyberbullying can continue away from school and at any time of the day or night, it often has more of an impact than physical bullying.
The impact of bullying on the victim, perpetrator and bystander can be profound.
Victims are likely to have poor self esteem, will have difficulties with social interactions and may seek to avoid confrontations through increased absenteeism from school. Health complaints such as stomach aches and headaches become more common. Educationally, they may fail to thrive.
Bullying may be a trigger in the development of eating disorders and other physical and mental health problems – victims have four times the prevalence of agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder when they became adults.
The extreme outcome of bullying is suicide, or otherwise known as bullycide.
There are consequences for the bullies too. Bullies often feel disconnected from school and are likely to get into fights. They are also more inclined to leave school early with low educational achievement.
Bullies are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and adulthood, and have four times the risk of developing an antisocial personality disorder.
A long term study in Sweden indicated that 60% of intermediate school bullies had criminal convictions by 24 years of age. In Australia, research has found students who frequently bully others are more likely to engage in theft, violent behaviour and binge drinking. As adults, bullies often become abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses or children.
The witness, or bystander, is not immune from the effects of bullying, nor can they be described as innocent. They provide a support function to aid and abet the bully through acts of omission and commission. They may stand idly by or avert their eyes; they can actively encourage the bully; eventually they may join in and become a bully themselves. The failure to actively intervene provides a form of encouragement to the bully. This encouragement will cause the victim even more distress and the bully’s antisocial behaviour is reinforced.
However, bystanders who do not participate are also at risk of experiencing increased mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, and are more likely to skip school and abuse drugs and alcohol.
Research has found that the impact of witnessing emotional violence such as bullying is perceived by students to have more impact than if the were violence directed at them. The impact was even greater if the incident of emotional violence happened at school. This underscores the effect that school bullying has on all children. Fear that the bullying could be directed towards them next time contributed to their feelings of distress when witnessing the bullying but also led to their unwillingness to intervene.
Bullying is not going to disappear from New Zealand culture in the immediate future. It will require a sustained and concerted effort by parents, teachers, schools, and the wider community to eradicate the problem.
In the interim, all players in the bullying arena – victim, bully and bystander – need assistance to constructively deal with the problem. In particular, all need to learn how to: