Schools should be a happy place for children. At school, children spend time with friends, learn new things, practice skills, and participate in fun activities. But for many of our children, school can be a place of tension and dread. Children who experience bullying at school do not have the same experience as their peers and do not get the most of out of their education. What's worse, children who participate in social media can also experience cyberbullying at any time, meaning that there is no safe space away from their tormentors. Is bullying an inevitable part of growing up or can it be stopped? What are the effects of bullying on our children? How can we counteract all this negativity?
What is Bullying?
When we talk about bullying, we're talking about behavior that falls into three categories. Bullying is defined as:
- Unwanted verbal or physical aggressive behavior, such as threats, challenges, or intimidation.
- Observed or perceived power imbalance, when a child is made to feel inferior to other students or treated as less than by their peers.
- Repetition or high likelihood of bullying behavior, not a one-off situation that can be apologized for and forgiven. Bullying is a persistent behavior.
With the rise of internet usage among young people, cyberbullying has also become part of the conversation. Cyberbullying refers to any actions which could be categorized as bullying but done online. Cyberbullying is often more anonymous than in-person bullying and can be much more targeted. According to reporting, cyberbullying occurs more often to female students, disabled students, obese students, and students who identify as LGBTQ.
About 1 in 5 students over the age of 12 experience bullying in some form. According to reporting from students, bullying occurs to children by other children who are more physically dominant, from a more affluent household, and/or have more social influence. Bullying seems to establish a pecking order, where the bully finds a target who they perceive to be weaker or less than themselves.
Bullying and Distance Learning
Distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been very difficult for our children. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, and confusion are pervasive. However, students have also reported that they are being bullied significantly less than they were pre-pandemic. These rates are also lower in schools where social distancing, smaller classroom sizes, and extra monitoring have been implemented. Quite simply, less social interaction between students has worked to cut down on in-person bullying.
But what about cyberbullying? Has the schoolyard tough just moved their torment online? Surprisingly no. While cyberbullying rates have not changed significantly, they have lowered as well. It suggests that there may be some correlation between in-person interaction and online activity. Self-reported instances of being a bully have also dropped. Experts speculate that living through this pandemic together has encouraged students to be more empathetic to one another.
Since 2016, many schools had been reporting a troubling increase in bullying due to the political climate. Children were parroting talking points they heard on TV or from their parents, targeting fellow students with mockery and chants, and exhibiting crueler behavior. It has been widely researched how children emulate the behaviors of adults around them and learn from example. In terms of this bullying epidemic, the pandemic has curbed a dangerous trend for the time being. Child experts have called on parents to recognize this situation and try to educate their children to keep instances of bullying to a minimum as life begins to return to pre-pandemic norms.
The Harmful Effects of Bullying
Bullying is a threat to the health and safety of our children both in the short term and the long term. So much so that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) actually monitors and studies rates of bullying and its effects.
Attitude changes are one of the first symptoms of bullying in a child. Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and isolation have been reported in victims of bullying. There are also physical consequences as well. Children may develop unhealthy eating patterns, wet the bed, become sicker more often, or develop psychosomatic illnesses. As you can imagine, a child who is the victim of bullying suffers not just emotionally or physically, but academically as well. Bullied children are more likely to be truant, stay home sick, or use other tactics to avoid attending school. They may start performing worse on tests, stop doing homework, and disengage with learning all together.
But what about for bullies? Interestingly, bullies also suffer due to their behavior. Children who exhibit bullying behavior also tend to perform worse academically and are more likely to be truant. Bullies also have an increased risk of substance abuse and difficulty maintaining social relationships. Whatever the bully thinks they might be getting out of harassing others, they are doing more harm to themselves.
The good news is, with mental health counseling, both bullies and their victims can overcome this cycle of trauma. Those who go without treatment report issues with relationships, self-esteem, and physical health. Children who are bullies in school often grow up to maintain toxic, abusive behaviors towards themselves and others into adulthood.
Given everything we know about bullying, it's no wonder that the CDC considers it to be a health crisis. Being bullied doesn't build character. Being a bully doesn't make you stronger. Abuse hurts the abused and the abuser. And we as parents must help to break this cycle.
What You Can Do
As much as we would love to protect our children 24/7, the fact is that we can't. And considering rates of bullying tend to rise as children age and become more autonomous, we're even less likely to be physically present to stop behaviors when they happen. So what can we do?
When it comes to cyberbullying, you must report. Many places are introducing new laws regarding cyberbullying, in part because of more tangible evidence that can be submitted in court or to the police. Familiarize yourself with the local laws where you live regarding cyberbullying. Make sure your child knows how to report abusive behavior on the apps they use. Almost every program that allows peer-to-peer communication has reporting capabilities, and they often rely on self-monitoring from users before they take action. Also encourage your kids to stop online abuse when they see or hear it happen, even when they aren't the target. As mentioned earlier, bullies rely on their social standing in peer groups to get away with their bad behavior. Your child can use their influence for good, to establish for their friends that such behavior is not tolerated in their circle.
If you see behavioral changes in your child, you may want to rush to their defense and raise havoc at their school. But this may only make your child more of a target. Remember this: you, your child's teachers, the school's administrators, and your and your child's friends are all a team. Work together with the people in your child's life. Create a network of support, not just for your child but for all children. Investigate what your child's school does to prevent bullying. Identify with your child where they feel the most safe and happy at school so that you can help pinpoint where and when this bullying behavior is happening.
No child wants to feel singled out, isolated, and made less than for who they are. We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down. When it comes to bullying, you may never be able to stop someone determined to say something hurtful to your child. But you can educate yourself, empower your child to speak up for themselves and others, and foster an empathetic atmosphere to combat the harmful effects of bullying.