October 05, 2022
By Dr Kathy Weston
Last Friday started off like any other day, the sun was shining and I was ‘out and about’ in London, preparing to deliver a talk on pupil mental health to school leaders. On my way to the venue, I got lost and needed to take a cab to quickly transport me to the correct location. My taxi driver asked me what I was going to be doing at the conference, so I told him. He paused, punched the air in glee, and told me that he believed in God and that I had been placed in his cab for a reason.
He began to describe his daughter’s experiences. She’d been the victim of devastating racist bullying, having shoes thrown at her in the canteen, daily threats of violence and foul, racist language used about her both on and offline. It was truly devastating to reflect on what was happening to her and to imagine what it must feel like to attend a school where racist name-calling was apparently routine and normalised. This loving father was clearly traumatised by what she had been through and the fact that they hadn’t received the help, support or action he felt that his daughter needed and deserved. He felt that his whole family had been affected and asked if this type of experience could have a long term impact on his child. What did the research say, he asked?
I arrived at my conference venue mid-way into a keynote by the Rugby International Referee, Nigel Owens MBE. Nigel was giving a talk about overcoming adversity. He told his story of growing up in the Welsh valleys, his experiences of bullying at school, the terror he felt when he realised that he was gay, the attempts he made to seek a ‘cure’ for his feelings and the mental anguish he went through trying to reconcile who he was with societal expectations of who he should be. The disparity led him to a suicide attempt. Unforgettably, he described how the adrenaline, challenge and scrutiny that came with refereeing the 2015 Rugby World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand was absolutely ‘nothing’ compared to the guts it took to ‘come out’.
What struck me that morning was that people never forget. People never forget how they were treated during childhood, how others made them feel at school, at work or within personal relationships. Nor do people forget how others respond to them when they disclose difficulty. Do they listen and validate or do they dismiss and minimise it?
Of course, in time, people can and do recover, even from grave adversity, but the experience of being bullied, ostracised, excluded or ‘othered’ undoubtedly leaves lifelong scars and can fundamentally change how individuals see the world.
Isn’t it amazing that people can feel comfortable expressing such vitriol towards someone else? That they can want to hurt or inflict emotional harm on anyone because of the colour of their skin, the way they look or who they feel attracted to?
It is very easy to be very angry with both bullies and their parents. I instinctively feel a visceral rage at bullies’ parents. Why haven’t they brought their child up to be kind? Why don’t they care? Why don’t they discipline their child at the first sign of poor behaviour towards others? An uncomfortable fact is that bullies can often be vulnerable themselves and may have experienced their own dose of maltreatment, feel disempowered at home or be struggling with their own selves and circumstances. Things are often not that black and white. What people go through behind closed doors is invisible to the world.
What we do know is that bullying in all its forms can indeed have a catastrophic and long-term impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. The Anti-Bullying Alliance describes bullying as “the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online”. There are the actual acts of bullying, but there is also the run-up to it that we need to talk to our children about. They may experience being ‘baited’ ahead of the bullying; provoked into becoming so upset that they fight back in a way that the bully welcomes. In these moments, it can be hard not to take the bait. Pre-empting and preparing for such scenarios can be useful. We can help children to recognise when baiting is occurring, see it for what it is and to develop strategies that could help to diffuse building tension. The Anti-Bullying Alliance helpfully suggests that the target person, “If falsely accused, of something, can politely, briefly and calmly state the truth”, but only once, before trying to exit the situation or room.
Bullying isn’t always terribly explicit or easy to identify. Bullies aren’t always bigger than us, pressing us against a wall. Bullies can be close to us, insidiously working towards an agenda of gradual belittlement. Ever heard of ‘false friendships’? This is the term used by The Anti-Bullying Alliance to describe “relationships where someone pretends to be your friend, or is your ‘friend’(sometimes), but actually uses their power to bully you”.
Bullies operate on and offline (sometimes both), come in all shapes and sizes, and may use words (or sometimes silence) to rock our sense of self and esteem. It is not uncommon for those who experience bullying to question their own accounts of what is happening, berate themselves for ‘overreacting’ and reject invitations to share their experiences, for fear of being dubbed ‘silly’.
I think that it is worth talking within family life about bullying we have witnessed, personally experienced, been exposed to or read about. Sharing stories that help us to define bullying can be a good place to start in raising children who care about others and how they might relate to those around them. Don’t forget to include online experiences that your children may have been party to, witnessed or heard about.
Beyond definitions, we need to talk about action and inaction; what are the potential barriers to seeking help and support for bullying? What would stop you telling a teacher? Who else would you talk to? How do you help a friend who is being bullied? When is it sensible to support them or share their struggles with an adult?
When should bullying be reported to the police? Bullying can be experienced as harassment, threatening behaviour and, in some cases, it can reach the threshold for a ‘hate crime’. Online communications that are indecent, grossly offensive or intended to cause distress may also constitute a crime. Isn’t it important that children can recognise bullying in all its forms and know that there are mechanisms in place at school and in society to make those responsible for others’ misery, accountable?
Lastly, let’s not forget that bullying can and does happen in our own homes. Sibling bullying, for example, can often go unnoticed, yet can be as detrimental to a child’s mental health than what they might experience from strangers.
Back to the taxi driver and his original question. What is the longitudinal impact of bullying? What are the ripple effects of both real-life bullying and that experienced by those via their computer or phone.
Let’s start with the latter. For behaviour to constitute cyberbullying, there needs to be an intent to cause harm and bullying behaviours need to be repeated over time. Though it might be an act of aggression or violence, a one-off incident would not usually be classified as cyberbullying. The most common cyberbullying experiences include receiving hurtful messages, having images or content shared without consent and/or being excluded from online groups or games.
How does it impact on mental health in the long run? Cyberbullying can have a serious impact on mental health. One reason for this, is the fact that each bullying interaction online may be shared, repeated or re-viewed. The victim may be repeatedly traumatised by the same content. It is understandable therefore, that victims of cyberbullying report significantly more mental health difficulties than victims of traditional bullying. They report more social difficulties, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and greater levels of suicidal ideation. Interestingly, unlike offline bullying, perpetration of online bullying increases with age, so this isn’t an issue that is likely to dissipate as children mature and progress through different educational stages.
As for face-to-face bullying, the evidence as to longitudinal impact is stark and conclusive: bullying in childhood is associated with a ‘higher than expected’ prevalence of anxiety, depression and self-harm in adulthood. A neat research summary of why bullying needs to be taken extremely seriously, arguably considered as a form of ‘child abuse’ is presented here by Professor of Psychiatry, Tamsin Ford.
Within family life, what can we do right now? Firstly, let’s not wait for situations to arise, let’s get ahead of the game. Let’s cultivate our children’s social skills and self-esteem, as well as their emotional and digital resilience. Let’s shore our children up, so that they don’t need to ever bully another person to feel good about themselves. Let’s work hard on modelling conflict resolution skills and talk about how we approach, build and sustain positive connections in our lives. By being aware, keeping our heads out of the sand, and being proactive, we can make the world a better place, one ripple at a time.
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For those of you who want to read more about Nigel’s story, his second autobiography will be published in November.
Anyone in the Tooled Up community who would like to learn more about helping children to challenge harmful talk or bigotry, can read our article, written by clinical psychologist, Dr Elly Hanson. We also have interviews on celebrating diversity and building inclusive school cultures and challenging biases.
You can learn more about cyberbullying and the importance of digital literacy in our podcast interviews on social media use and cyberbullying and get some expert advice on coping with cyberbullying from former Researcher of the Month, Dr Larisa McLoughlin.
It might surprise you to learn that research consistently reports that sibling bullying impacts around 50% of sibling relationships. Find out more in our interview with researcher, Emre Deniz. Cultivating positive relationships between siblings can have significant benefits day to day family harmony, happiness and mental wellbeing. Packed with practical tips, we’ve got a whole section of resources in the Tooled Up library that can help.
Finally, if you’d like to understand more about criminal law, watch our webinar with criminal defence lawyer, Harriett Mather.