November 16, 2022
By Dr Kathy Weston
You may have noticed that it is Anti-Bullying Week across the UK; a good time to remind ourselves, our families and colleagues that bullying is a problem of pandemic proportions. One third of children (globally) experience bullying in schools (UNESCO, 2019). Bullying isn’t just something that occurs in childhood either; adults can bully one another too - at work, at home and in relationships. It’s pervasive.
I kickstarted the week by interviewing a global expert on the topic: Professor O’Higgins Norman, UNESCO Chair on Tackling Bullying in Schools and Cyberspace. I started by asking him what he thinks of the whole concept of ‘Anti-Bullying Week’, a time when pupils are encouraged to wear different coloured socks, celebrate uniqueness, diversity and take part in activities that promote kindness. What is its purpose? What should be its purpose? What would he do for Anti-Bullying Week if he was leading an organisation, business or school, and wanted to do something impactful? His view was that, “It is a good thing. It raises awareness in an intense way for a week every year”, but he cautioned that, “It’s not a solution to the problem.” Awareness-raising is good. However, it should be followed by agency and action.
As a first step, we all need to recognise and acknowledge what bullying is and how the 2022 definition differs from those we may have been familiar with growing up. With the proliferation of digital technology, the modus operandi of the bully has shifted. Traditionally, bullying was defined by four characteristics: intentionality, repetition, power imbalance and negative effects. Cyberbullying amplifies the repetition and the harm significantly. Any original incident can be photographed, filmed and circulated. This is a form of bullying that can carry on at home, after school and in the holidays; there is no hiding from it. Cyberbullies can often be anonymous too; a fact that increases the traumatic effect of the experience and the scope of the humiliation.
Anyone can be bullied, but those who are trolled or picked on are, more often than not, considered ‘outsiders’ or stand out from the crowd. It is worth noting that there has been a big rise in homophobic bullying, identity-based exclusion, intra-ethnic bullying and food allergy bullying, for example.
The latter is one type of bullying that came onto my radar recently when I encountered a parent whose teen had been teased about his peanut allergy; teasing that involved allergens being tossed at him and the incident being filmed for publication on social media. Incidents of this kind are not uncommon. Common triggers for food allergy-related bullying are simply having an allergy, having to sit in a particular spot (for example, the ‘nut free table’ in the canteen) or having to carry allergy medications.
As Professor O’Higgins Norman says, yes, we need to acknowledge and take an interest in the individual psychology of the bully, but we also really need to ‘zoom out’ and consider the larger societal structures that support bullying. A child who picks on another child because they are ‘different’ carries a value system that must have been validated elsewhere. This is why when we talk about tackling bullying, we need to consider political, cultural and societal changes that facilitate and support it. If we want to ‘tackle bullying in school’ we can’t just think about individual cases, responding as and when they happen; we need to take a holistic and systemic approach where we explore together and co-create zero tolerance approaches and policies to it.
Bullying is something we need to tackle as families, as schools, as communities, as businesses. The cost of bullying to the individual in terms of mental health and life opportunities can be significant, resulting in low self-esteem, depression, social isolation and even suicidal ideation. There is a large economic cost too: recent research in Sweden found that, if it is not tackled, the cost of one year of bullying in schools can be up to two billion euro over the following 30 years.
Good news is, there are some fantastic, evidence-based approaches, ideas, templates and ready-to-go resources that schools can access and implement right now. However, ahead of implementing any of these, Professor O’Higgins Norman recommends that school leaders do some groundwork; sit down with staff, explain how highly valued they are and then express the desire to work collaboratively with them to ensure the school feels like a safe place for all.
After that, clear anti-bullying policies and procedures need to be established. As Professor O’Higgins Norman says, this isn’t just ‘a job for SLT’. He recommends policies be co-designed, co-written and owned by everyone in the school. Pupils should be actively engaged in the process of policy design. If settings want to belong to a community of schools leading the way, they simply need to join the FUSE community; an initiative designed by Dublin City University, which complies with UNESCO’s whole education approach. This is an approach which says that schools should lead on anti-bullying work but, ultimately, it is everyone’s responsibility.
FUSE encourages students to review their own school’s anti-bullying policy, work collaboratively across the school and eventually present current policies to parents and staff. Pupils become integral to the change rather than having it imposed upon them.
There are also plenty of classroom based resources for teachers that are ready and waiting for implementation. Take subjects like gender-based sexual abuse or harassment, which are of growing concern in schools. A consortium made up of teachers, game designers and academic experts in gender, gender-based violence, game design and education studies have collaborated to create GenTOPIA, a game-based educational resource aimed at students (14-16 years), to tackle these issues. It involves a series of interactive activities which address gender stereotypes, consent, digital safety, street harassment, coercive control, non-consensual image sharing and homophobic bullying. The resource is designed for teachers who deliver subjects relating to issues of personal development, digital safety, gender equality and relationships education. In addition to the game, teachers can access a multimedia handbook that guides them through the pedagogical rationale and learning outcomes for each scenario. Learn more here. The GeGame project team is very keen for schools to pilot this resource and in return to receive feedback on its implementation and impact. Do contact Dr. Debbie Ging at the National Anti-Bullying Centre in Dublin City University, Ireland (Debbie.firstname.lastname@example.org) if you want to get involved.
One of the points I was struck and surprised by in my interview with Professor O’Higgins was his assertion and belief that, despite the pervasiveness of bullying, that society has actually become kinder. He made the point that our tolerance of bullying has reduced so there is plenty of reason to hope.
On a family level, we need to talk about how difference makes us all feel. If we see someone who looks different to us, come across those who hold different values to us or make us feel uncomfortable in any way, we need to reflect on why. Everyone has the capacity to bully another human being and that is worth acknowledging to our children. Self-reflection and personal curiosity around difference and discomfort provide antidotes to the temptation to humiliate or shame another person.
As parents, we should model how we can journey from being prejudiced to being more understanding. We can all think of times where we may have rushed to judgement about another person. Don’t be afraid to model the fact that throughout our lives we may have held false assumptions about other people and tell stories of how our prejudicial thinking was challenged or overturned. We can model curiosity about things we know little about: cultures, traditions, religions, ways of life that differ from ours. We can demonstrate, rather than just talk, about respect.
Bringing it back to school, globally, the number one reason children are bullied is due to physical appearance, so as parents, let’s get proactive. Let’s never talk about another person’s appearance in a derogatory way when watching a film or tv programme, or in passing conversation with our children. Let’s make sure that our children are crystal clear about our own values and expectations for behaviour before they set off for school each day.
Given that so much bullying occurs online, make sure they fully understand your family’s digital values too and take an interest in their online interactions. Are they being kind to others on WhatsApp? Why have they booted their friend off a game? How are they responding to online bullying when they witness it among a friendship group? We live in a society where silence is often rewarded. We are told not to get involved in others’ disputes, but whatever we tolerate becomes the ‘norm’. As far as possible, we should be aiming to raise good ‘bystanders’ and allies. We can do this by helping our children become advocates for others, able to bravely assert, ‘that is not right’, in any situation.
If your child has been affected by bullying, don’t hesitate to seek support. Organisations such as Bullying UK (part of Family Lives) can provide practical information and advice to young people through its website and via email. The Cybersmile Foundation offers support, advice and guidance to people of all ages who have been affected by cyberbullying and online hate campaigns. Their services are used by schools, parents and young people all over the world and their helpline is open 24 hours: 0845 688 7277.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you are part of the Tooled Up community, you can tune into our podcast interview with Professor James O’Higgins Norman when it arrives in the library, very shortly. In the meantime, if you want to find out more about bullying in its different forms, and effective ways to tackle it, you might be interested in our interviews with experts on sibling bullying, cyberbullying and social connectedness and the impact of social media. We’ve also teamed up with psychologist Dr Elly Hanson to get her top tips on supporting your child to challenge harmful talk in their peer group.
Cultivating kindness and empathy is vital in combating bullying. Find out more about the importance of kindness in our interviews with experts, Dr Jess Datu and Professor Robin Banerjee. Why not see how many acts of kindness you can perform as a family between now and Christmas? Our 100 Acts of Kindness will help. Finally, check out our list of books for all ages that can help to develop empathy.