Schools need to do more to tackle bullying

1 May 2015

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upset childDr Loretta Trickett, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law, International Criminal Law and Criminology, at Nottingham Trent University, writes about a recent important study on the effects of bullying, and her own childhood experiences

It is perhaps unsurprising that a longitudinal study by Warwick University  has found that the effects of bullying by peers is more long lasting than maltreatment within the home. The authors rightly suggest that bullying by peers at school must be taken more seriously by the Government and public authorities as insufficient attention has been afforded to the problem. The detrimental effects of bullying by peers are likely to be connected, in part, to the public face of such bullying which is exacerbated by the use of social media.

Cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person on-line or repeatedly picks on another person through emails or text messages, or uses on-line forums and postings, intended to harm, damage, humiliate or isolate another person. Use of mobile phones and the internet means that incidents of bullying between peers are no longer restricted to particular physical locations and that the audience and potential for participation are much wider and can be anonymous. This combination of different forms of bullying can amount to the constant harassment of pupils both inside and outside the context of the school. In extreme cases it has lead to students taking their own lives.

In a recent blog on Twitter on the INHS Hate Crime website, Stephanie Carbone has suggested that posts on Twitter have contributed massively to “Cyber-bulling including defamatory blog posts and campaigns of harassment, examples of which regularly feature on social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook”. Some examples of posts on social media websites by adults in the public eye, most notably Katie Hopkins, also arguably amount to hate speech. Indeed, the United Nations High Commissioner has compared Katie Hopkins’s recent remarks about migrants where she referred to them as “cockroaches” with the hate language used before the Rwandan genocide.

As argued by Stephanie Carbone, in allowing hate speech to remain on their newsfeed, Twitter is arguably acting as an accomplice “offering a highway for racists and Anti-Semites”. [See Scaife, L (2013), “The interrelationship of platform providers and users in the regulation of Twitter and offensive speech – is there a right to be offensive and offended at content?”, Communications Law, 18(4), p. 131].

She suggests that much more needs to be done to educate individuals on hate speech and bullying and the potential impact of malicious tweets and postings.  The failure to curb such practices through use of regulation and the criminal law is creating more victims and leaving them with no recourse to remedies. We are living in a culture that has trivialised the use and impact of social media and in doing so has also trivialised the impact of bullying and harassment. It is within this ‘virtual’ climate that our young people are being raised and they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of bullying and the isolation that it entails because bullying by their peers occurs when they are attempting to forge a sense of their own identities whilst they are still psychologically immature. The fear that can be generated through the use of social media to intimate and threaten young people is well captured in the film Unfriended; the background to the plot being a young girl’s suicide following bullying by her peers which includes a ‘shaming video’ being posted on social media.

To conclude, whilst schools alone cannot solve the problem, certainly they need to do more to raise awareness around bullying and outline to young people what bullying is by using workshops and examples, including those drawn from social media websites. What is really necessary however is to equip our young people with the skills they need to resist becoming involved in bullying and to help them become more resilient to bullying practices.

In 2009 I published an article on bullying between boys at school and how these practices were embedded in dominant conceptions of “what it meant to be masculine”.  In that article I argued that the challenge for government and policy makers on bullying was to make engaging in abusive behavior a less attractive option for young people and in doing so they could learn a lot from the resistance of those who did not engage in bullying practices but resisted the bullying of others and, at times, resisted the bullying of themselves. The design of such policies does of course need to take account of the enormous significance of social media in the lives of young people and this is a considerable challenge. But it is a challenge that we need to take up, as the research by the University of Warwick has clearly indicated.

For those who are interested, I provide an example of resistance to bullying from my own childhood where another child supported me at school and this proved to be a turning point in my own secondary school experience where I had recently joined a new school:

When I was about 12 I was bullied by two girls at secondary school who whilst initially pretending to be ‘my friends’ took every opportunity to humiliate me. There were many examples but a particular issue was over my the social status of my family, as I lived on a council estate and my father was a factory worker compared to the two girls in question who lived in middle class areas and whose parents were comfortably off. On one occasion my father could not afford to buy me a pair of new school shoes and I had to wear a pair of my mother’s shoes which were old-fashioned and had square toes when the current vogue was for pointed shoes. I can still remember the sniggering and laughter and the remarks about my ‘lovely’ shoes and questions about where they had been purchased.

A little while later my father lost his job and I was to have free school meals. In those days you had to queue for a free school meal voucher and the stigma was very real. Rather than do this I would go without food all day which resulted in my feeling faint and not being able to concentrate. One girl discovered my secret by chance and she decided to do something about it. She devised a plan which involved her joining the ‘free meals’ queue, giving my name and collecting my ticket and then proceeded to sell it to one of the boys for a reduced price. This meant that he got a cheaper dinner and saved some of his dinner money and I got some money to buy a sandwich; obviously there was no stigma of free school meals for him as his friends all knew that it was a ‘fun’ ruse from which he benefitted. Thankfully the publicity of queuing up for ‘free school’ and associated ‘stigma’ is a relic of the past.

This girl who took it upon herself to help me was physically strong girl and was even respected as being tough by the boys in my class. After that if anybody tried to bully me she would put them in their place and my school days became much happier as a result given that the bullying stopped. Her act of kindness and her support of me helped me to resist the teasing and torment which may well have cost me my self-esteem at a formative period in my life. This example of resistance to bullying made my experience of secondary schooling a positive rather than a negative one.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.