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BULLYING ISN’T JUST SEEN AS “KIDS STUFF” ANYMORE – IT’S A SYSTEMIC ISSUE THAT CAN END IN TRAGEDY.
But why does it happen and what can we do to stop it? Laura Peppas asks the tough question – ‘are humans hardwired to bully?’
For most, a school is a school. For others, it’s a private, seemingly inescapable nightmare. The corridors are no longer just corridors – they present an opportunity for a bully to confront their victim, away from the eyes of teachers. The bus ride home wreaks havoc on the nervous system. Lunchtime is the loneliest hour.
Holly Rourke can pinpoint the moment her nightmare began: midway through year 10, one afternoon after class.
“I remember calling out to my friend as the bell went,” Holly says.
“All of a sudden one of the popular girls turned around and snapped ‘your voice is so annoying.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time, it was just a comment – but from that point onwards, there was a passionate hate towards me. That’s when it all started.”
Soon everything Holly did or didn’t do was a source of aggravation to her bullies, from her “big hips” to her “greasy hair” or the pens she used.
“Suddenly I couldn’t sit where I usually did, near the ‘popular group’ – I was shunned to the other end of the room,” she says.
“I’d be confronted in the corridors after class, they’d surround me and tell me I was a bitch and that they were going hit me – it became cool to hate me.”
At the school social, Holly’s father had to drop her right outside the doors and pick her up not a minute after the time it was supposed to finish, because there was a rumour going round that she would be “beaten up” at the event.
“Any friends I had gradually deserted me, fearing being bullied themselves. Being my friend became too hard, and joining their group was the easier option,” Holly says.
“From that moment on I was completely isolated, and even more of a target. I became anxious about going to school. I took a lot of sick days.”
On Holly’s sixteenth birthday, she woke up to her house being egged.
“They knew when my birthday was, so they picked that day to do it,” she says.
“I just remember feeling so crap about it, but my parents tried to pretend it had been a prank by someone else – they later told me they had lied to make me feel better.”
Holly lasted six months of unrelenting emotional abuse before her parents had no choice but to pull her out of the school and move her to another.
“Back then I felt so embarrassed and ashamed about what happened,” Holly said.
“I’d lie awake and go through everything I could have done that made them hate me so much, but I couldn’t think of anything. My mum kept saying it was jealousy, but I never believed her.
“It’s stayed with me a bit even all these years later… sometimes when people are in bad moods I worry they hate me, and then that anxiety plays up again.”
For so long, it seemed that bullying was reserved as “kids stuff.”
Teachers preferred to stay out of the matter, while many parents had the attitude of ‘we all go through it,’ or even that it toughened you up.
But the widely reported suicides of young people who have been relentlessly bullied proved this was a major issue that had to be taken seriously, and fast.
Today the statistics on bullying and suicide are alarming: bully victims are between two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University*, while a study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying*.
According to statistics reported by ABC News*, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day due to fear of bullying.
Principal psychologist at Northside Psychology Holly Kirwan, who offers counselling and assessment services for a wide range of matters including anxiety, bullying and harassment, says the prevalence of social media has somewhat exacerbated the issue, with bullying no longer contained to the classroom.
“The stress can be enormous because the home is no longer a sanctuary,” Holly says.
“You’re not necessarily going to be able to escape it unless you completely switch off – which can be very hard for young people to do – and because of the nature of cyberbullying, you don’t necessarily know who it is or where it’s coming from.”
Of course, it’s not just young people who feel the force of online bullies: in 2014, TV personality and former model Charlotte Dawson committed suicide after an onslaught of abuse from Twitter “trolls.”
Her final tweet was a simple message to her faceless bullies: “you win”.
“Often the people who see no other way out are battling other issues in their life, and may not easily see a solution,” Holly says.
Anxiety, depression, social withdrawal and low self-esteem are just some of the effects associated with bullying, whether it be physical, verbal or cyber.
“Victims can develop phobias sometimes even years after, they can become depressed, feel hopeless, worthless and helpless, some people can be traumatised and some can even end up with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Holly says.
So what causes someone to bully? Is it instinct – an innate, almost animalistic urge within to weed out the vulnerable? Or is it learned behaviour?
Holly says current research indicates it’s “50/50.” “It is a multitude of factors,” she says.
“Dr Beben Benyamin from the Queensland Brain Institute collaborated with researchers at VU University of Amsterdam to review almost every twin study across the world from the past 50 years, involving more than 14.5 million twin pairs in 2015, and that showed our traits come from half nature and half nurture*,” Holly says.
“I think it’s important though to look at a predisposition to this kind of behaviour – it may be role modelling or it may be that there [are] not enough boundaries. There can be so many different causes: with some people it may be that they start to target the victims because of their own low self-esteem. In other cases, people aren’t even really aware their behaviour is bullying behaviour; they’ve told themselves what they are doing is ok, it’s normal.”
While Holly believes most bullies can “unlearn” their behaviour, others may not.
“A small percentage of people are always going to be wired differently,” she says.
“They’re not going to have empathy, they’re not going to have remorse and they’re not going to feel any guilt.”
Whether it’s instinct or learned, many researchers believe children can’t truly be considered bullies until they’re four or five years old.
“Before that age, most children haven’t developed the mental complexity of wanting to cause pain to others,” Peter Randall, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at the University of Hull in England and an expert on bullying, has said. “A two-year-old may get angry and kick or punch, but it’s impulsive behaviour.”
In a culture that is fascinated with winning, power and violence, some experts suggest that it is unrealistic to expect that people will not be influenced to seek power through violence in their own lives.
One report suggested the fact that one gets more social recognition for negative behaviours than for positive ones can also contribute to reasons why people bully. Television shows or movies, as well as real life situations in schools, for example, show that acting out is more likely to get noticed than behaving oneself civilly and courteously.
A 2010 study presented in a poster session at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in San Diego went inside the minds of bullies themselves, involving 666 students (ages 12 to 16) from 14 schools who had recently reported bullying others. The researchers compared the bullies with a group of 478 students who had not recently engaged in bullying.
Results showed bullies tended to hold a negative view of themselves, suggesting they pick on others to feel better about themselves, and they may especially single out those who have trouble fitting in for other reasons*.
So what is the solution? Many experts believe schools could do more to combat the issue.
“As a researcher and educator I have at times been disappointed and saddened at the low rate of progress in reducing bullying in schools,” University of South Australia professor Ken Rigby, an international authority on bullying, writes in his 2010 book How Schools Counter Bullying.
“It is now widely acknowledged that bullying is not limited to physical forms of aggression but includes verbal and indirect forms such as deliberate and unfair exclusion – and that the latter can be the most devastating. Secondly, it is now evident that reducing bullying in schools is really hard.”
Currently, each school’s bullying policies differ, ranging from offering counselling services for bullied students to educational programs for teachers on handling bullying cases.
A spokesperson for the Education Directorate says a “whole school approach” is the most effective way of dealing with bullying.
“[Public] schools put in place Social and Emotional Learning programs as well as lessons in developing personal capabilities as outlined in the Australian Curriculum,” the spokesperson says.
“This proactive approach builds the skills and resilience of students to engage in respectful relationship and how to deal with bullying. This approach also emphasises respectful relationships for all students, regardless of cultural/ethnic background, religious beliefs, whether a student has a disability, or identifies as LGBTQI*.”
Implementation of the controversial Safe Schools program, which encourages schools to be safe and more inclusive for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families, is seen by some as a step in the right direction, with “a range of free support for school staff, including professional learning, advice and resources.” More than 20 schools in the ACT have been listed as members of the Safe Schools Coalition.
Holly Kirwan believes change is most effective if it can begin from the “ground up.”
“The earlier children learn not to bully and the earlier bullies are held accountable for their behaviour, then, the better,” she says.
“Schools need to take a stand from a young age. It can be difficult, and this is where you need good leadership and consistent policies and procedures in place from the beginning: people need to understand the serious nature of the situation, that there are laws in place; workplace are supposed to be safe and schools are supposed to be safe.
“Bullying is not just a single comment, it’s a systemic, ongoing humiliation and it’s harmful. When you look at the Human Rights Commission, there’s legislation in place to protect people, so this sort of behaviour shouldn’t be happening from the start.”
If a bully’s behaviour is left unchecked it can follow them into adulthood, says Holly.
“It’s not uncommon for a bully to take that behaviour into the office or other environments. Whatever the age, bullying can continue if the behaviour continues to be validated.”
Canberra lawyer Kavina Mistry knows first-hand the impact of office bullies. When she was a young lawyer starting out in an interstate law firm, she was subjected to an almost daily “denigration” by a colleague for over six months.
High-stress environments such as law firms can be known to be a breeding ground for bullying: “Everyone is a high achiever, everyone is competitive,” Kavina says.
“Lawyers and their clients have very high stakes, and at times that can result in people taking out any feelings or insecurities out on people around them.”
The day to day bullying had a “catalyst effect”.
“I’d start to believe what they said – that I wasn’t strong enough to do this job, or I just wasn’t good enough – and the seeds of doubt that were planted in me started to wander into everything else that I was doing,” she says.
“There was a feeling of anxiety every time I got an email from this person or every time I got a call from this person, it just became this instant feeling that I didn’t deserve to be there.
“Unfortunately, it got to the point where I’d become fearful each day that I would have contact with this person – I wasn’t able to get out of bed without considerable difficulty and I wasn’t able to speak clearly because I was so fraught with anxiety. It became quite hard for me to even have day to day conversations. I had to seek counselling because I was considering leaving the field, due to the fact that it was so constant, and I was later diagnosed with anxiety and depression.”
Luckily, Kavina eventually managed to turn her experience into something positive.
In 2014 she started the Young Lawyers’ Mentor Program for the ACT, a program designed to connect young lawyers with more senior practitioners for advice, guidance and support.
“The job itself is intense, it takes its toll on people – so I think it’s important for young lawyers to essentially have an outlet where they have someone they can go to, to talk about either law or personal matters such as building confidence or fears they may have in practice,” Kavina says.
“The program itself has had a fantastic response – I’ve had so many people saying things like ‘it’s so nice to feel that I’m not alone.’ And there lies the key in stopping those feelings of anxiety or isolation.”
Kavina is now working in an “incredibly supportive” law firm and last year was awarded ACT Young Lawyer of the Year.
Like Holly Kirwan, she believes the key in combating bullying or harassment lies in “changing the culture.”
“People need to be caught out to know it’s not ok to be belittled or bullied,” Kavina says.
Some important groundwork has been made in prosecuting bullying cases: Victoria’s anti-bullying legislation, known as Brodie’s Law, commenced in June 2011 and made serious bullying a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail. The legislation was introduced after the tragic suicide of a young woman, Brodie Panlock, who was subjected to relentless bullying in her workplace. Meanwhile, the death of student Allem Halkic, who jumped off the West Gate Bridge in 2009 after receiving threatening text messages from a former friend, led to Australia’s first prosecution over cyber bullying.
“Legislation like Brodie’s Law makes it very clear to people that actions have consequences and I believe legislation like this takes a significant step towards creating much-needed accountability,” Kavina says.
“No one deserves to be bullied, in any shape or form, and I believe legislation like this will create awareness that bullying can and does have very serious consequences for the victims. Legislation like this will hopefully act to deter this type of behaviour as it will make it clear that any perpetrators can and will be held accountable for the consequences of their actions, as they should be.”
* Yale University, Office of Public Affairs, “Bullying-Suicide Link Explored in New Study by Researchers at Yale”
* Matt Dickinson, The Independent, “Research finds bullying link to child suicides”
* Susan Donaldson James, ABC News, Health, “Teen Commits Suicide Due to Bullying: Parents Sue School for Son’s Death.”
* University of Queensland, “Nature vs Nurture: Research shows it’s both”
* Livescience, “Bullies on Bullying: Why We Do It”
This article originally appeared in Magazine: Escape for Summer 2016/17. Find out more about Magazine here.