Bullying: a public health issue

Talk to any individual who has experienced bullying, whether recently or many years ago, and they are able to vividly recount their experience. Whether you have personal experience of bullying or you are a professional dealing with it on a day to day basis, it has impact.

The victim often feels powerless, frightened and sometimes ashamed to admit that it is happening to them. Bystanders often deny the behaviour, but can be equally frightened that they could be the recipient themselves.  Parents are often angry that this is happening to their child and call for strong action in response, including harsh punishments for those who bully.

What is bullying?

Although most of us are familiar with the idea of bullying, there isn’t one agreed definition of exactly what it is. However, Dan Olweus, a leader in the academic study of bullying, argues that impact, intention, repetition and power are key elements.

In the absence of one clear definition of bullying, the easiest way to understand it can be by looking at examples. Bullying can be physical, emotional and psychological, and includes a relatively new form, ‘cyberbullying’.

Direct bullying includes name calling, threatening behaviour and physical aggression, often involves an audience, and aims to frighten, humiliate, or to gain status by using abusive power in front of witnesses. Indirect bullying includes more subtle forms of aggression. It uses relationships to damage or manipulate by excluding, gossiping, spreading rumours or giving dirty looks, and may involve individuals or groups.

In contrast, cyberbullying uses electronic communication to bully a person, by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature. It often aims to hurt the individual and damage social status or reputation, with the perpetrator frequently remaining anonymous.

Some argue that bullies are skilled manipulators who are good at reading others’ feelings and emotions, and use this to their advantage. Others see bullies as lacking social competence, misreading social cues and responding aggressively and inappropriately. Research on social processes looks at the role of different participants in a bullying incident. This suggests that as well as the bully and victim, those in other roles (such as bystander or assistant to the bully) also have a significant effect on the incident.

Children often do not tell adults about bullying, or say that adults do not recognise or respond to it. Preventing or responding to bullying behaviours can be a daunting task. To do this effectively, the adults responsible need to have a greater awareness of how children experience bullying, and understand that children’s perceptions of bullying may be different from their own.

How often does it happen?

Recent research echoed a conclusion made twenty years ago that bullying in schools is the most common kind of violence in schools. Ditch the Label‘s 2014 survey suggests that 45% of UK children have experienced bullying. The NSPCC states that bullying affects almost all children in some way, and highlights it as one of the main concerns for children and young people.

A survey undertaken by the Welsh Government in 2010 indicates that 47% of year 6 pupils, 44% of year 7 pupils, and 25% of year 10 pupils reported being bullied. ‘Action against bullying‘, a recent report by Estyn (the body inspecting schools in Wales), highlights the inconsistency of recording bullying incidents in schools. Recording is particularly inconsistent in relation to bullying linked to characteristics protected within UK equality law, such as disability, race, religion and sexuality.

Bullying, whether physical or not, can have a lasting impact.

Bullying, whether physical or not, can have a lasting impact.

The impact of bullying is persistent and pervasive for both victims and perpetrators, with health, social and economic consequences lasting well into adulthood. Links have been demonstrated between bullying and future domestic violence and criminal activity, and suicides of school children are often linked to bullying.

Greater interest and attention on bullying by professionals, media, researchers and policy makers have highlighted the additional burden it places on children’s physical and mental health services. Surely there is a need to bring about a change in children’s experience of bullying, given the legislative guidance that requires education professionals to ‘safeguard and promote welfare’.

Improving outcomes

There is Welsh Government anti-bullying guidance for schools, governors and local authorities in Keeping learners safe (2015) and Respecting others (2012). However, implementing this guidance is a challenge for schools. If we are to improve outcomes for children, schools need to acknowledge the damage done by bullying to academic performance and pupil wellbeing.

Source: www.ditchthelabel.org/uk-bullying-statistics-2014/

A growing number of bullying prevention interventions are available to schools, but there is still a lack of robust evidence on which are most effective. More research is needed on the factors influencing how we do (or don’t) intervence when we recognise bullying behaviours, including the contextual and social processes involved.

It is important that those involved in preventing and addressing bullying have the skills, knowledge and understanding that will empower them to tackle this difficult and complex issue.  Research is needed to explore teachers’ and children’s understanding of bullying, and the emotional impact for all involved.

Reducing the prevalence and impact of bullying for the young people of Wales involves recognising that it is a major contributor to health and wellbeing. Developing a strategic approach encompassing research, effective evidence-based interventions and comprehensive training is not only a necessity but a moral responsibility.


About the author: Shân Jones is Education Consultant at SJ Education Consultancy.

Main image: Rich Johnson, part of the Weapon of Choice project.

Banner image: Lee Cullivan, via Flickr.com

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