As a prevalent and growing public health concern, bullying is a major risk factor for poor physical and mental health of the victim with the impact expanding much further than the school yard. It is one of the largest risks to students and school communities, with one in four Australian students in Year 4 to Year 9 reportedly being bullied at least every few weeks or more often.
Bullying is considered to be a repeated abuse of power that is often characterised by aggressive behaviour and intentional harm doing. The impact of bullying is widespread and has the potential to have devastating impacts on individuals and their communities. Bullying is carried out either directly, by physical or verbal abuse, or indirectly through rumour spreading and/or social exclusion, nowadays often through the use of social media.
Bullying behaviour is found in all societies, regardless of socio-economic status and ethnicity. Despite the ubiquity of bullying, the notion that it is merely a ‘rite of passage’ should no longer be an acceptable excuse for the poor conduct of students, as this out-dated way of thinking lessens the responsibility of perpetrators and encourages acts of aggressive behaviour with the intention of enhancing status.
What is the Cost of Bullying?
Mental health concerns among young people has grown into a nation-wide crisis, with depression, anxiety and eating disorders being experienced by more young people today than ever before. Bullying may not be the only reason for this spike in mental health issues, however, it is difficult to deny the contribution that bullying plays given the increasing presence and influence of social media. Young people who were once safe from bullying from members of their student cohort when in their homes are now able to be targeted through several online platforms, with almost no repercussions for online perpetrators.
The REACH Foundation recently campaigned for the fight against cyberbullying by partnering with elite sporting clubs and showcasing the abuse that athletes receive daily. This campaign highlighted the ease with which bullies reach their victims and demonstrates that, regardless of status, bullying can be experienced by anyone. ABC News reports that Melbourne Football Club (MFC) player, Neville Jetta, said that he had been deeply affected by racist online abuse early in his football career and that one comment he received when he was younger had affected his on-field performance for over a month. To highlight the significance and weight of cyberbullying, MFC players recently ran through a banner built from online comments attacking AFL teams and players. According to REACH, cyberbullying impacts one in five young Australians, with many not having the courage to speak out about it. Jetta noted the “united approach that we’ve had definitely strengthens the courage within you to stand up to [bullying]”.
Not surprisingly, children who experience bullying have been reported to have an increased likelihood of developing ‘internalising disorders’, such as anxiety and depression, as young adults. According to The Victorian Centre for Adolescent Health, bullying victimisation of students is associated with an increased likelihood of depressive symptoms the year after the bullying occurred, with the incidence of this increasing in older students. Although rates of depression may be higher in older students, the risk of younger children experiencing mental illness is only increasing.
ABC News also reports that a Queensland father who saved his 12-year-old son after a suicide attempt in February, claims that he “failed to read the signs” and put his son’s anger and frustration down to “becoming a teenager”. The father says that he knew his son was being bullied, but that he didn’t realise the extent or the impact that it was having. Patrick McGorry, an Australian psychiatrist known for his extensive work in relation to youth mental health, has commended the family on their decision to share their story. "Telling stories and exposing things that people want to sweep under the carpet is the way to solve the problem — it is the first step," he said. Youth suicide as a result of bullying is a very real issue, particularly when the victim is unable to seek appropriate support.
Last year in the Northern Territory one person each week reportedly took their own life. NT children commit suicide at more than three times the rate of those in any other Australian jurisdiction, with indigenous children being at greatest risk and making up almost half of national youth suicides.
The damaging impact that bullying has on victims is well documented. However, what perhaps is not often considered are the adverse consequences for the perpetrators. Identifying the reasons why students bully is crucial in order to seek to eradicate, or at least minimise, levels of bullying. A student bullies another for a myriad of reasons that can range from wanting to assert social power and status, to having low self-esteem and looking for a level of acceptance among peers. Perpetrators are perhaps unaware of the devastating consequences of their actions, which indicates the need for further education on mental health issues in schools and communities.
A longitudinal study conducted on the consequences of adolescent bullying on Victorian students found that bullying perpetration in high school was associated with an increased likelihood of violent behaviour, theft and drug abuse as an early adult. The study reported that one in five students had engaged in bullying behaviour, with significant associations found between Year 10 bullying perpetration and outcomes in Year 11 involving school suspension/expulsion, marijuana use, and binge drinking.
What Can You and Your School Do?
- Educate students that bullying can happen to anyone, but it is never okay. Talk about how to respond to bullying safely. Read the strategies at https://bullyingnoway.gov.au/ForKids/WhatCanIDo/ImBeingBullied for eight to 12 year olds, and for teenagers at https://bullyingnoway.gov.au/YourRole/ForTeens/Pages/default.aspx
- Let children know how to get help if bullying happens. Start the conversation with students about the impact of bullying. Perpetrators need to know the impact of their actions and victims should be encouraged to speak to an adult if they are experiencing bullying. Young people need to know that they are being heard and that their issue will be investigated respectfully.
- If someone tells you about bullying, your role is to support them, listen to what they want to do, help them work out their options, and assist them to report to the school or other authorities if appropriate. A calm response is important to allow students to talk about the situation.
- Keep communication open. Check in with students often. Listen to them. Know their friends, ask questions, and understand their concerns.
Signs of Bullying
It is important to be aware that each student who has been bullied will respond and act differently. According to ‘Bullying, No Way’, students often 'shut down' and become reluctant to talk if they are experiencing bullying and don't know what to do. Some indicators and behavioural changes may include:
- no longer wanting to participate in school activities that they previously enjoyed
- changes in their willingness to speak up in class
- withdrawal from friends
- appearing insecure or frightened in the classroom
- changes in their method of travel or route to school or being frightened of walking to school
- a drop in academic performance
- changes in eating patterns
- frequent tears, anger or mood swings
- unexplained bruises, cuts or scratches
- damaged belongings or clothes
- starting to get into fights.
What Does Your School have in Place?
What anti-bullying policies, procedures, communication and practices is your school implementing to ensure students are aware of this message? Are perpetrators aware of the impact of their behaviour on others?
Education to change the culture and expectations in relation to bullying is key in the fight against bullying for both students and the community-dealing with bullying is everyone’s responsibility.