November 15, 2023
Making a Noise
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
If you live in the UK, you may well be aware that it is Anti-Bullying Week. This year's theme, which emerged following consultation with teachers and pupils, is 'Make A Noise About Bullying'. According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, the theme was chosen because, "Too often, we are silent when we see bullying take place, silent about the hurt bullying causes, and silent when we hear bullying dismissed as ‘just banter'. It doesn't have to be this way".
Bullying is a pervasive problem, both online and off. Data from the UK’s Department for Education found that 30% of children experience bullying in schools and that approximately one child in every classroom is bullied each day. These statistics are echoed globally. With the proliferation of digital technology, the modus operandi of the bully has shifted. As any incident can now be photographed, filmed and circulated, and because the internet offers a degree of anonymity, cyberbullying amplifies potential harms significantly. There is no hiding from it once school is done for the day. Cyberbullying can carry on at home, at the weekend and during the holidays.
Anyone can be bullied, but, more often than not, those who are picked on are considered ‘outsiders’, or stand out in some way from the crowd. Sadly, homophobic bullying, identity-based exclusion, intra-ethnic bullying and even food allergy bullying are all on the rise. Globally, the number one reason children are bullied is due to physical appearance. We also know that children with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities are significantly more likely to be bullied than their peers. Research by the Anti-Bullying Alliance shows that 36% of pupils with SEN experience frequent bullying compared to 25% of those without SEN. Children with a learning disability or autism are particularly at risk and, in general, neurodivergent individuals are much more likely to be bullied than those who are neurotypical. One recent survey found that a staggering 75% of autistic young people have experienced bullying and only half said they felt safe at school.
It’s reassuring to know that most children who encounter bullying from peers, particularly if it is brief, recover well with support from friends and family. However, those who have been through something more traumatic can experience long-term effects and the resultant feelings of isolation and alienation can be challenging to overcome. 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. People who have been bullied are also more likely to be obese, earn less money, be unemployed and leave school without qualifications. There is a wider economic impact 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 euros over the following 30 years.
In itself, Anti-Bullying Week, with its suggested activities emphasising kindness and diversity, is not a solution to the problem. But with over 80% of schools in the UK taking part, it certainly raises awareness. Last year, Professor O’Higgins Norman, UNESCO Chair on Tackling Bullying in Schools and Cyberspace, told me that if we want to tackle bullying in school, we can’t just think about individual cases, responding as and when they happen. Instead, we need to take a holistic and systemic approach, where multiple agencies explore the issue together and co-create zero tolerance approaches and policies.
We need to build on the momentum created by events such as Anti-Bullying Week, both at school and at home, through wider political and societal change, through the individual conversations that we can all have with our own children and through modelling the behaviours that we want to see.
So, how can we ‘make a noise’ about bullying as individuals, beyond Anti-Bullying Week? We can start by ensuring that our children truly understand the importance of being kind to others. We shouldn’t only do this every so often, but make a point of doing it regularly. We can also start by reflecting honestly and openly on how difference makes us feel. If we see someone who looks different to us, or come across those who hold different values to us or make us feel uncomfortable in any way, we need to reflect on why.
It’s worth acknowledging the fact that everyone has the capacity to be unkind. This kind of self-reflection and curiosity around difference provides an antidote to the temptation to humiliate or shame someone else.
Sadly, it is pretty common in many adolescent peer groups for ‘jokes’ to be made at the expense of others; comments that denigrate or dehumanise individuals or groups who might be in some way different. This type of bigotry can take many forms, ranging from the blatantly hostile to the more subtle. This kind of language and behaviour seems to be fuelled by messages in pornography, popular music and wider culture, and young people may use it as a way of denoting ‘status’, trying to fit-in and manage insecurity. They may also lack knowledge about its seriousness and impact.
Clinical psychologist Dr Elly Hanson recently gave Tooled Up parents advice on supporting children to step away from and challenge this kind of behaviour and suggestions for what to do if they realise their own child is using phobic or harmful language themselves. She pointed out that surveys have found that most young people think that being kind to one another is one of the most important things in life, but that they often downplay this core value because they don’t think others feel the same way. Dr Hanson advises that we should let our children know that, chances are, if they don’t make these unkind comments, or even better if they challenge others when they do, most people will (deep down) agree.
Calling out poor behaviour in others (like good friends) isn’t always easy and when it involves scenarios involving strangers, it may be unsafe to do so. There might be other, more effective ways of showing our disapproval and defending others. It’s important to acknowledge this complexity with your child, and explore together what their options might be in different hypothetical or real scenarios. Chew over their various pros and cons and support your child to come to their own decisions.
In school, if your child is the bystander to bullying and they feel upset by what they have seen or heard but don’t feel able to directly confront the bully, could they talk to friends who they sense are ‘on side’? There’s power and comfort in numbers. Could they discuss what they have seen with a teacher? Young people are often pressured by peers into keeping silent about bullying. They might be worried about being labelled a ‘snitch’. Challenge this! Remind them that reporting harmful behaviour is courageous whistle-blowing and that it's admirable to take action against injustice.
If you come across your child using language or making comments that concern you (on or offline), Dr Hanson’s advice is key. Tell them clearly that you don’t accept it. Challenge what they are doing (but not them as a person). Invite empathy; “How would you feel if this was being said about you?”. Later, initiate a gentler, exploratory chat, which encourages your child to think about who or what has influenced them to behave like that. By being curious and reflective, you are encouraging them to be too. If they are able to identify negative influences (whether these be friends, other people, or things in wider society), explore together how they can resist these in the future. Discuss how they can avoid joining in when peers behave like this, what options do they have? Seeing and treating them as someone who has the strength to resist the pressure to treat others poorly invites them to see themselves like this too.
You might find that they describe all kinds of harmful talk as ‘‘banter’ or ‘just jokes’. Actually, it’s more often than not simply prejudicial and discriminatory. When systematic, it is bullying. Whilst young people may not initially know the meaning of some of these words, take this opportunity to unpack and explain them. Make it clear which words you consider completely unacceptable and why.
If parenting younger children, nudge them to consider and identify more subtle, unkind, bullying behaviours - eye rolling, spreading rumours or purposefully leaving others out, for example. Prompt them to think about how this behaviour might make them feel can help build empathy and consolidate family values around how people should treat each other.
Given that so much bullying occurs online, going over our digital values is key. 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 in a friendship group? As a family, how do we treat others? What is our motto? What do we consider to be 'unacceptable' behaviour? How can we ensure we don't feel tempted to participate in bullying others at school, at work or in personal relationships? We live in a society where silence is often rewarded, but we need to be making a noise. 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.
Finally, we can likely all think of times where we may have rushed to judgement about another person. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk to our children about how we may have held false assumptions about others, or tell stories of how our prejudicial thinking or unkindness was challenged or overturned. We can model curiosity about things we know little about: cultures, traditions, religions and ways of life that differ from ours. Let’s all strive to demonstrate, rather than just talk, about respect and kindness.
If you work in a school, there are many excellent evidence-based approaches, ideas, templates and ready-to-go anti-bullying resources that you can implement right now.
Professor O’Higgins Norman recommends that, before doing so, school leaders do some groundwork. Leaders can set the foundations of an environment that does not tolerate bullying by validating and caring for the staff body, parents and children. Regularly surveying the school climate is a good idea.
Clear anti-bullying policies and procedures then 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. In fact, UNESCO advises a whole-education approach to anti-bullying, recognising that bullying initiatives must involve the wider community, since technological and societal systems, values and pressures can all impact on the prevalence and type of bullying and cyberbullying that occurs in a school.
If you’d like your setting to belong to a community of schools leading the way, we suggest that you join the FUSE community; an initiative designed by Dublin City University, which complies with UNESCO’s whole education approach. 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.
You might also like to take a look at VotesforSchools free resources designed to support informed, considered debates about bullying, which offer children a chance to have their voices heard. The organisation also has some excellent resources on tackling bullying and banter, for children aged 7-11 and 11-16.
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 and would like to find out more about effective ways to tackle bullying in its different forms, tune into our interview with Professor James O’Higgins Norman or our podcast episodes on sibling bullying, cyberbullying and social connectedness, and the impact of social media. You can also read more expert advice from psychologist Dr Elly Hanson. It is important our children are encouraged to stand up for others and to gently challenge poor treatment of others. How can we raise upstanders? Here are a few tips for you to consider.
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. You could see how many acts of kindness you can perform as a family between now and Christmas - our 100 Acts of Kindness will help. Younger children can enjoy our kindness passport or a book from our lists on building empathy or supporting healthy friendships. We also have some great activities to nudge children (both younger and teens) to consider how to treat friends. If you are raising older teens, why not have a good family discussion around fundamental values?