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Bullying: Do We Need to Fundamentally Reassess How We Deal With The Problem?

Our Deputy Editor, who was bullied at school, believes we need to take a much broader view on bullying to properly tackle the problem

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Moviefan


Have you ever have been bullied? Have you witnessed, or even engaged in, bullying behaviour? Consider it isn’t always done consciously, and it doesn’t just happen to kids: it’s very common in the workplace, it can happen at home and it’s all over our media too. As someone who was bullied at school, and who now has children of her own, it’s an issue that both interests and enrages me and personal experience tells me it’s still widespread. Whilst there’s greater awareness of it, its incidence shows little signs of declining and its impact on mental health is as bad as it’s ever been. Do we as a society need to fundamentally rethink how we are approaching the issue? I believe we do.


The latest UK Government figures show a decline in bullying in schools over the last 10 years, with 36% of this year’s survey respondents saying they had experienced some form of bullying at school in the previous 12 months, compared with 41% in 2005. However, The Guardian reports the “figures showed little change in the proportion of children complaining of daily, weekly or monthly bullying.” It seems lots of the activity has just moved online.


Ditch the Label (one of the UK’s largest anti-bullying charities) carries out an annual survey of 13-20 year olds. The 2015 survey (carried out at 73 establishments with 3023 participants) found that 53% of them had been bullied at least once in the past fortnight. Those students who were disabled, gay, or from the lowest income group were far more likely to have been bullied than anyone else, with percentages varying from 50-75%. The NSPCC also collect statistics on bullying, including cyberbullying and they say, “...from research studies and from what children tell us, we know that bullying is an issue that affects almost all children in some way.” If the NSPCC is right and almost all children are being affected by bullying in some way, we clearly haven’t learned how to address it adequately yet.


Why do we bully one another? The conventional view is that it’s learned behaviour but it could also be viewed as a survival strategy: Either we can dominate or be dominated. Humans also have a hard-wired need to look good and bullying behaviour can impress our peers, particularly when we’re teenagers.


The results of a study published in July 2015 in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence by Jennifer Wong, Assistant Criminology Professor at Simon Fraser University, suggests that bullying has evolved as a way of establishing and maintaining dominance and is perpetuated because the bully gets benefits from the behaviour. It’s based on the well-known principle of Evolutionary Psychology Theory, which itself descends from Darwinism.


Jennifer Wong and her team surveyed 135 teenagers at a Vancouver high school about their experiences of bullying. Using the answers they gave, the students were then divided into four groups: bully, bystander, victim and victim-bully (victims turned bullies). The bullies, about 11% of the group, had the highest levels of self-esteem and social status and the lowest levels of depression, backing up her theory that bullying can give you an advantage over your peers.


Although a small study, the results are enlightening and contradict conventional wisdom that bullying is a learned behaviour, sometimes a result of poor upbringing, and that often the bully has been bullied themselves. Bullying is a complex subject and the causes may turn out to be partly evolutionary and partly learned behaviour; as yet we don’t have the definitive answer.


Most schools have a zero tolerance policy on bullying and yet it still seems to be as prevalent as ever. If it really has evolved to give us advantages over our peers, one way to reduce its incidence would surely be to eliminate its rewards and make it totally socially unacceptable, in the way that drink driving has become. This would require a fundamental shift in thinking about the problem.


We’d not only have to acknowledge that it happens in the adult world too,  we’d have to start talking about it more. How often does the subject of adult on adult bullying come up in your conversations? How often do you witness it, whether in private homes, work, or public? And, if you’ve ever been bullied, or have bullied someone, how comfortable do you feel about talking about it?


One of my friends suffered hideously at the hands of a female colleague for several years. Normally a self-assured and confident man, he was a widower with two young children and had to tolerate her nastiness because he had to support his family. Eventually he was signed off sick eventually and although he reported the bully, she kept her job and he found a new one. Sadly, she has now targeted someone else. At least my friend reported her and his complaint could help future victims.


This company, and others like it, can surely only keep employing bullies by ignoring their wider impact. Staff who suffer or witness bullying suffer lower morale and higher rates of sickness and absence, are less productive and provide worse service. Such organisations have higher staff turnovers and more grievance and legal actions against them. All of these factors impact on their bottom lines.


Again, we clearly need to rethink how we deal bullying is dealt with in the corporate world []. A good start would be for large and medium-sized companies to carry out - and publish - annual surveys on the incidence of workplace bullying so we can identify scale of the problem. And as often there can be a fine line between what is acceptable management practice and what is bullying, ongoing discussions about the difference wouldn’t hurt either.


If you exhibit bullying behaviour as a child, you’ll carry on into adulthood unless someone reprimands you and explains how hurtful it is, or you have an epiphany. After all, bullying means you can get your own way and makes you believe you’re popular. What’s not to like? But many fail to realise that by the time you reach adulthood your bullying behaviour means you’re not particularly liked. As few will be brave enough to stand up to you and tell you your behaviour is unacceptable, you’ll carry on.


It would take another article to address other sorts of adult on adult bullying, such as domestic abuse, so I’m just going to touch on our wider culture instead. Our society, usually via the media, often seems to condone, and even engage in, both implicit and explicit bullying. Consider the columnists who make a living writing nasty things about people, or the newspapers and politicians who bully others in public. You might argue this is just the hurly burly of politics or that people are entitled to their opinions however distasteful; I think it sets a poor example. What else is it but bullying behaviour? These people are our leaders, with their opinions constantly broadcast all over the media, so what hope is there of changing our culture when they clearly think this kind of behaviour is acceptable?


What kind of example is this giving our young people? Again we - or at least sections of our society - are telling them: “It’s ok to behave in this way. Go ahead and bully someone, fight to be the dominant person in a group, trample all over other people’s feelings because this is how you get on in the real world.” Although schools and workplaces take the bullying issue much more seriously these days, it’s pervasiveness and persistence reveal much about our modern culture and what many of us believe are acceptable ways of behaving.


In a world with less bullying there would be fewer people suffering the effects of abuse that can last a lifetime. There would be fewer incidences of low self esteem, depression, stress, anxiety and suicide, the National Health Service budget would be far smaller and companies will find their employees take less time off and are more productive when present.


Nothing will really change until we fundamentally reassess our broader culture; our media, our government, our workplaces and schools and our parenting skills. Until we show young people by example that bullying of any kind is unacceptable; the problem will never go away.




My Personal Experience


Before I went to secondary school, I was a happy child, with a small circle of close friends. The few times when people were mean to me stand out in my memory as they were so unusual.


A term into my first year at my comprehensive (secondary school) and I was a different person: miserable, withdrawn, insecure and hating school. Almost immediately, two girls in my class found out my mother was a teacher there and used it as an excuse to taunt me mercilessly, day in and day out. The night before returning to school after the first Christmas holidays, I wept uncontrollably at the thought of going back. After a great deal of persuasion Mum managed to get me to tell her what was going on.


There was a meeting between the bullies, our teacher and me but it didn’t help; if anything it made the problem worse because I’d snitched. There was only one way I could escape and that was to make sure I got into our local grammar school at thirteen. As I was in the top academic stream, I was confident of going; however, it still meant two years of being bullied by those girls.


Moving to the grammar school at thirteen didn’t help that much. I now had no self-confidence and little self-worth and didn’t know anybody into my new class so had problems fitting where. Starting again can be hard however old you are, but at that age, when you’re very self-conscious and desperate to fit in, it was almost impossible for me. Experience had made me retreat into myself and uncomfortable about direct eye contact, so I probably came across as a bit odd and unsure of myself. Kids instinctively pick up on weaknesses and exploit them, so I was unwittingly making myself a target for more bullying. I had no close friends in my class and spent the next three years flitting from group to group, never really feeling like I belonged and sure that everyone disliked me. My self-esteem, which was already low when I joined the school, sank even further.


Life changed for the better as soon as sixth form started at sixteen: We could choose our classmates, so I chose all the people I liked and ditched the bitchy girls. I also made a conscious decision to be myself and stop trying so hard to fit in. If people liked me then great, we would be friends and if they didn’t, I wasn’t going to lose any sleep. Rebecca became Becky and I started to come out of my shell, talking to people and beginning to find myself again. It turns out that there’s a fighter in me who wasn’t going to be beaten and many of the girls commented on the difference in me.


Today, I don’t recognise that miserable teenager. I’ve become a confident, sociable woman but I sometimes wonder what I would have been like if the bullying had never taken place. Would it have taken me so long to gain some self-confidence? What kind of career would I have had, if I’d gone for more job interviews back in my 20s? It’s pointless to dwell on the past though; the present and future are what you have control over.


Even though it’s nearly 30 years since I left school, sometimes I’m still struck by a paralysing fear that people don’t like me and I don’t fit in. I also suspect the periodic depression I suffer is a legacy of those teenage years; certainly my diaries from the time make grim reading and contain the overriding feeling that life was not being fair. Being bullied has undoubtedly shaped who I am now; the difference is that whereas before it made me angry, now I’ve made my peace with it and moved on.


If you have been affected by the issues in this article, here are some useful links:


Ditch The Label (Young Persons' Bullying)






Think U Know (school bullying)


Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland


Workplace Bullying




Becky Killoran

About the Writer

Becky was a TEFL teacher for many years, including two spent in Japan. A keen reader, she is also passionate about music and is an enthusiastic member of her local choir, Rock Chorus. She lives with her family in Milton Keynes.


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