Over the last 20 years, awareness of the harmful effects of school bullying has been growing in Australian and overseas communities, schools have, with differing degrees of success, taken up the challenge of addressing bullying as part of their ethical responsibility to keep young people safe. We have begun to understand that bullying affects all levels of society; it is, in a very real sense, everybody’s problem, Sandra Craig, manager of The National Centre Against Bullying, reports on bullying at the challenges for Australian schools.
What is bullying?
Bullying is recognised globally as a complex and serious problem. It is a form of aggression, involving the abuse of power in relationships. It has many faces, including the use of emerging technologies, and varies by age, gender and culture.
While there is no commonly accepted definition of bullying, commentators in the field (Olweus, 1999; Ross, 2002; Smith & Brain, 2000; Smith, 2005) generally agree that bullying has the following characteristics:
- it consists of repeated negative actions
- it is intended to cause distress
- it involves an imbalance in power
- it is directed towards a specific individual or group
- it can be conducted in person, covertly through direction of the actions of others, or through information and communication technologies.
Bullying behaviour of any kind, inside or outside the school environment, refers not to a single event but to a relational pattern repeated over time where social dominance is gained through the negative use of power to harm (Crothers & Levinson, 2004; Smith, 2004; Smorti et al., 2003). It implies ‘both intention and persecution’ (National Safe Schools Framework, 2011, 77). It ma y be direct physical or verbal bullying, or covert or indirect and carried on in more subtle, secretive ways. It may also be carried on as cyberbullying though e-technologies such as instant messaging or social networking sites.
Is bullying the same as harassment, aggression, conflict or rejection?
Other negative behaviours are sometimes mistaken for bullying and include conflict, aggression, harassment and violence. While these must be taken seriously and addressed, they differ from bullying because they occur only once, often there is no power imbalance; they do not have the same target each time and may be either deliberate or unintentional. While social rejection or isolation can be very unpleasant or hurtful, it is not in itself bullying. However, if a child is deliberately made aware they are purposely being excluded, if others refuse to sit with them repeatedly and encourage others not to, or if others are encouraged to isolate or exclude them, it can be considered bullying.
Covert and cyberbullying
Most adults are conscious of direct physical bullying such as hitting, spitting, kicking, or verbal abuse and will intervene to stop it. Covert bullying involves actions as subtle as scornful stares (Rivers, 2001) and encompasses thr eatening gestures, exclusion, making false claims about a person’s behaviour or family, even making implicit threats by gesture or eye-contact. While most schools now have anti-bullying (or wellbeing) policies addressing face-to-face bullying, many have not yet come to grips with this form of ‘relational bullying’ which has a variety of different forms and may be very hard to detect and address (Cross, et al., 2009).
Cyberbullying is a form of covert bullying. It is like other forms of bullying, in that it is a relational problem where communication technologies are used intentionally, repeatedly and antagonistically to harm another person or group. It is different because it can happen at any time, anywhere; there is no escape behind doors. Targets frequently don’t know the identity of the aggressor (Cross et al, 2009; Bjorkqvist et al., 1992; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Audiences can be huge and reached quickly. Power is allocated differently, and bullying can be inter-generational. Perpetrators have at least an illusion of anonymity and their behaviour can be disinhibited because of this; empathy is also reduced because the victim’s reaction is not seen. Hence, the effect of the bullying may also be intensified.
How much bullying is there in Australian schools?
Bullying data are compiled in a number of different ways, using different instruments and asking questions resulting in slightly different answers. This makes it difficult to obtain exact figures.
Rigby (1998, 2006) has found about one in six students bullied face-to-face on a weekly basis. Donna Cross and her team found about one in four students bullied over a period of several weeks (2009). These findings ‘are not directly comparable, because, since the second figure refers to a longer time, one would naturally expect more bullying to be recorded even if the actual rate was the same’ (Rigby, K, personal communication, April 4, 2011). The difference is important because it leads to the misconception that bullying is on the rise.
While these statistics reveal unacceptably high levels of school bullying, research in a number of countries has begun to show antibullying programs and intervention strategies have actually worked, with bullying reduced by ‘around 20 per cent in schools where they have been employed and rigor ously monitored’ (Rigby, 2010). This trend is echoed with reductions in peer victimisation in most European countries (Rigby, 2010, Rigby & Smith, 2011). However, it is important to bear in mind that gains are not uniform and we shouldn’t diminish our efforts to combat bullying.
Research into cyberbullying by Cross (et al., 2009) shows about 10 per cent of young people across Australia experience cyberbullying. Overseas prevalence rates as high as 52 per cent have been reported (Dooley, et al, 2009), which may give an indication on the likelihood that cyberbullying could grow as rapidly in this country as it has in others. Schools’ successful efforts in prevention and management of overt bullying may result in increases in covert bullying (including cyberbullying), as young people find alternative means to bully, new technologies emerge and where policy development and management strategies lag behind. It is concerning that many students who do not bully face-to-face do so online, and bullying through e-technologies is both easier and nastier (Cross, et al., 2009).
Why do children bully?
Children who bully do so for a range of reasons.
- poor impulse control or anger management
- disconnection from and dislike of school
- belief that aggression is a way to achieve what they want
- lower levels of anxiety than other members of the peer group
- inflated self-esteem
- lower levels of moral reasoning
- lower levels of empathy.
Some young people bully proactively because it will help them achieve a social goal and they see it as a valid act. They are less likely to bully face-to-face, preferring to use covert forms of bullying such as exclusion, humiliation or spreading misinformation. They typically feel little empathy for their targets, although they can often accurately predict others’ feelings and manipulate them socially (Sutton et al. 1999, 2000).
Those who bully reactively, in response to a situation, are typically less socially competent, tend to have lower anger control and lash out physically when feeling anxious or tense. They are often not well accepted by other children and sometimes become the targets of bullying. This group, sometimes called ‘bully/victims’, tend to suffer the poorest short and long-term effects (Baldry and Farrington, 1998). They tend to come from family backgrounds where bullying or more serious abuse occurs, parents are not supportive and/or don’t stop children’s aggressive behaviour, and where children have a lot of time alone or are ignored.
Who is bullied?
Any child or young person can suffer from bullying.
We know the onset of adolescence is a peak time for bullying, when power relationships start to be established and particularly when this change is associated with transition from primary to secondary education and earlier friendships break up and social groups change.
Some young people with a propensity for bullying can detect others’ vulnerability, sometimes expressed through body or facial language (e.g. are quick to express anger or sadness) and may be relatively less assertive. Certain children are at greater risk of being bullied: if they don’t like going to or being at school, have low levels of resilience and capacity to make and keep friends or form relationships with adults, poor social and emotional skills, find it hard to manage anxiety and conflict and are not well accepted by children of the same age. Children who are different can also become targets of bullying for instance, if they are new at a school, speak or dress differently, have different interests. Young people with a different sexual orientation or in the autism spectrum (Bottroff et al., 2005) are at particular risk.
Sometimes, though, it is difficult to separate cause and effect: the National Safe Schools Framework (2011) points out ‘using nonassertive social behaviour makes it more likely that a student will be bullied, but being relationally bullied through social exclusion also leads to a student becoming more non-assertive over time. Similarly, a student’s anxious behaviour and social withdrawal can increase the likelihood of being bullied, but being bullied can also lead to an increase in their anxious behaviours and social withdrawal’ (NSSF Resource Manual p 82).
Effects of bullying on targets and bullying children
Bullying of any kind can have harmful short and long-term social and psychological consequences for those directly involved, others, including those in the immediate vicinity and even entire communities. Victims of bullying of any kind typically feel powerless to repel or fight back against their aggressors (Campbell et al., 2009).
Young people who are victimised have a higher likelihood than do other young people of experiencing adverse health outcomes (Rigby, 2006, McGrath, 2006) and social adjustment health problems. Young people who engage in repeated bullying are more likely to be involved in ongoing anti-social behaviour and criminality, have issues with substance abuse, demonstrate low academic achievement and be involved in future child and spouse abuse. Both victimised young people and those who take part in bullying across time may demonstrate lower levels of achievement than expected (Pepler et al., 2002).
Lesbian, gay and bisexual young people tend to be disproportionately victimised relative to their heterosexual peers (Bontempo and D’Augelli, 2002), as a direct result of the ignorance, fear and prejudice surrounding them. Homophobic bullying tends to be systematically carried out by large groups of young people rather than individuals. Lesbian or bisexual adults who were bullied at school have identified very negative mental health outcomes from those experiences; in the short term, high rates of suicide and suicidal thinking, self-harm, and in the longer term, alcohol abuse and drug use (McGrath &Craig, 2005).
The aspects of cyberbullying most affecting young people are the viciousness of much of the bullying; they often don’t know the identity of the bully, the public humiliation of having images of themselves posted on the Internet and their seeming inability to escape it. No one seems to be available to help them, and they are worried their parents/teachers will find out, partly because their access to technology may be removed.
The relationship of bullying to cyberbullying is integral – we see cyberbullying is a subset of bullying. Cyberbullying is to do with behaviour rather than technology, but it ‘mirrors and magnifies’ traditional bullying (Cross at al., 2009) often with severe effects to mental, social and academic wellbeing of young people concerned.
The National Centre Against Bullying (NCAB) counsels describing bullying behaviour (e.g. ‘bullying student’, ‘target of bullying’) rather than labelling young people – perhaps permanently – with the emotive terms ‘bully’ and ‘victim’ (see also Espelage & Swearer, 2003).
What can schools do?
It’s important to remember bullying is a social problem, and solutions need to occur within the social context. Schools can do several things to help reduce bullying, increase satisfaction and improve student social and academic outcomes.
The overall culture of the school is vital in determining student wellbeing. It is revealed in the ways students behave towards each other, values and ethos, environment, customs and ceremonies, teachers acting in accordance with formally espoused values and using positive behaviour management strategies with students.
Prevention is central. A school needs an overall wellbeing focus directed by strong values and respectful relationships focuses understood and endorsed by the whole community. Curriculum and systems can reflect this focus, from the way parents are greeted at the school office to the ways discipline is used to teach appropriate behaviour. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s eSmart Schools Framework and web-based system provides a consistent set of approaches to enhanced wellbeing, cybersafety and bullying.
Schools’ policies have been reasonably effective over the last 10 or so years in addressing face-to-face bullying, although work remains to be done to develop policies in the areas of covert and cyberbullying. Definitions should be generally agreed on and accepted; language used about bullying, cyberbullying, cybersafety and wellbeing is most effective if it is consistent between secondary schools, primary feeder schools, home and the wider community.
Data gathered over time helps to track incidence and students’ perceptions of safety. It’s important to ensure policy implementation guidelines are well understood so teachers, students and parents know the processes to follow to manage situations, prevent recurrence and restore relationships. There also needs to be recognition of the harm inflicted by bullying of all kinds. Guidelines could include ways to identify bullied students through behaviour like social withdrawal, nervousness, depression, decline in academic engagement and performance, as well as absenteeism (Cross, et al., 2009).
Young people must be part of the solution, from involvement in policy development to educating their parents about smart, safe and responsible uses of technology (eSmartschools.org.au). We know from research (Cross et al., 2009) that young people tend not to tell teachers or parents about bullying or cyberbullying incidents, one main reason is fear that adults will at best fail to improve the situation at worst, exacerbate it. In Cross’s study, nearly half of all students reported that telling a teacher about being covertly bullied resulted in no improvement or a worsening of their situation. Currently, most schools respond punitively to bullying, but Cross asserts this makes matters worse. A teacher’s over-zealous response, leading to punishment of a bullying student, can lead to retribution for the target by the original student or his/her friends. It is important to try to restore relationships so that both students can move on. Working with bullying students to show them better ways to be socially successful is one way to do this and it’s more effective if we do it as early as possible in the child’s education.
Bystanders (those who witness bullying) are now seen as integral to the dynamic of the bullying situation. Bullying situations are witnessed by other young people in 85 per cent of cases (Craig & Pepler, 1995) and although these children can play a key role in stopping bullying, in most cases they do not. They have good reasons for doing so. Some feel powerless to help; fear, often justifiably, for their own safety or of becoming a target themselves, or hope someone else will step in. In some cases, children feel the bullied child has in some way brought the situation on themselves and therefore deserve it at some level. While young people do not, in the main, like to see others bullied (Batsche & Porter, 2006) they might join in the bullying to avoid being bullied themselves or to remain in a powerful group. Young people are more apt to act in defence of a bullied student if the school has a positive sense of community and they feel connected to it (we don’t do things like that around here), they are empathic and have strong friendships, strongly developed value systems, or believe their parents would expect them to do it.
Teachers have a powerful role to play. Cross (et al., 2009) refers to the cycle of inaction as it applies to covert bullying; however, inaction towards any form of bullying gives it tacit approval and if it appears to students that the school condones bullying they are less likely to seek help. While it is now well recognised there is more difference in academic achievement of students between classes within a school than between schools in a cluster, I would argue there are also diverse wellbeing outcomes for students based on the effectiveness of different teachers’ class management, including vigilance, equality, positive, respectful role modelling and refusal to accept put-downs and other negative behaviours.
Various forms of e-crime (‘sexting’, hacking, impersonation, harassment) are starting to have an impact on schools. Increasingly, the interests of the learning or wellbeing of members of their community may necessitate action by leaders to address incidents enacted on e-technologies off-site and out of school hours. South Australia has moved to allow principals to confiscate mobile phones suspected of carrying illegal material and to suspend or exclude students who threaten ‘the safety of wellbeing of a student or member of staff…[even if this is] an event that occurs outside of school hours of off-site’ (DECS memorandum).
If, as we’ve said, bullying is a problem that affects everyone, it’s vital that all members of a school’s community are involved in solutions. Schools can work with parents and other stakeholders in a variety of ways to develop consistent language and approaches around bullying, cybersafety and wellbeing and in promoting positive relationships. Whole school approaches, like The Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s eSmart system and the National Safe Schools Framework underline the importance of everyone working together to develop respectful and caring school cultures.
Bullying violates young people’s basic human right to be respected and safe. ‘The mental and physical health, social, and academic consequences of bullying have an enormous impact on human and social capital. The costs of bullying burden our education, health care, social services, and criminal justice systems, as well as work force productivity and innovation. Bullying concerns and affects us all’ (Kandersteg Declaration Against Bullying in Children and Youth, Switzerland, 2007) (emphasis added).
Sandra Craig is Manager of The Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s National Centre Against Bullying.
Sandra’s knowledge in bullying behaviour in schools is extensive, due to her teaching career and the fact that she has been involved in the development of a number or initiatives focused on reducing bullying in Australia, including the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s Review of Antibullying Policy and Practice.
Additional to her role as Manager of the National Centre Against Bullying, Sandra works with RMIT University as a researcher to assist the development of The Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s Cybersafety and Wellbeing Initiative. Sandra also works part-time at Leaps and Bounds Student Development Centre with adolescents identified by their classroom behaviour and academic performance as being at risk of failing to complete school.
Sandra is regularly asked to present to parents and teachers on subjects relating to children’s school experiences and on aspects of school safety. She consults to schools delivering teacher professional development on bullying prevention, cybersafety information and ways to improve school cultures.
Previously a teacher managing a sub school of over 200 year senior students, Sandra is well respected in her field. She has written articles for Education Quarterly, lectured for Deakin University, completed two Master of Education degrees and a Postgraduate Diploma of Vocational Education and Training (curriculum).
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