With the recent case of 15-year old Amanda Todd, (a former Grade 10 student at the Coquitlam Alternate Basic Education school in British Columbia, who killed herself Wednesday as a result of a cyberbullying campaign against her), it's clear we need to do a better job of supporting youth who are victimized by bullying. In Todd's case, the bullying was electronic.
While there is not a clear, well established link between the bullying and suicide, there are ways we can intervene and prevent bullying, and this includes peers.
Our research has shown us that bullying occurs every seven minutes on the typical school playground. Research has shown that youth who bully electronically are also primarily the same youth who bully in traditional means. Cyberbullying, as it's called, is just another form of bullying. In Canada, on average about 19 per cent of youth are victimized by electronic bullying and it is more common in girls compared to boys. Bullying is a relationship problem in which a person or group repeatedly uses power and aggression to cause distress to another. It can be verbal, physical, social, or electronic.
How can we support our youth? To begin with, youth need to feel accepted, integrated and provided with healthy peer, parent and teacher support. Because bullying is a relationship problem, it requires relationship solutions. Youth need healthy relationships characterized by respect, safety, trust and caring, developmentally appropriate independence and autonomy, communication and fun. It is up to adults to be role models for healthy relationships and for respecting others.
We need to keep the lines of communication open, and ensure youth know how to be responsible, moral, and ethical in cyberspace -- the same way they would be face-to-face and in face-to-face relationships. Encourage youth to use their judgement, to not get pulled into a bullying situation because of a need to belong. If it's wrong, ensure they don't join in and make the problem worse. According to an article in Canadian Living: teach youth how be safe online and set boundaries. Keep electronics in an open space in the house and don't let youth use cell phones and computers in their rooms at night.
We also need to be supportive by letting our youth know that they can tell us if they are being bullied. The main reason they do not tell adults about electronic bullying is because they fear their technology being taken away. For youth, social media is a central means of communicating and belonging to a social group. We need to respect the importance of electronics and work on socializing them to be ethical and moral in their use.
Teaching peers to intervene
Peers play a huge role in bullying incidents, but they can also be a lifeline of support. Peers are present during 88 per cent of bullying incidents. When they intervene, bullying stops in less than 10 seconds, 57 per cent of the time. We need to teach peers the skills to intervene online and support the child who is victimized. Youth need to know how to recognize the signs of when someone is in distress and decide how to support the person in distress. They can support them themselves online or even better tell an adult about what they saw and get their advice and support.
Peers are attracted to bullying events or episodes on school playgrounds, our research shows. When youth gather to watch, they spend most of the time passively watching, and they focus attention on the bully, not the victim. This peer attention reinforces the bullying behaviour.
Additional peers are often drawn into joining the bullying, exacerbating the problem. Research shows that the more peers who gather, the longer the bullying episodes tend to last. The same processes happen online. Peers can inadvertently contribute to the problem by passively watching one unfold. They can also join in which makes the impact of it even worse.
There are many reasons that peers don't intervene: fear that they themselves may get bullied, concern that they will lose status by aligning with the peer who is victimized, or an attitude that accepts bullying. These are real concerns and adults need to acknowledge these concerns and be there to support and help them when they communicate there is a problem in a non-judgemental way.
We need to make it clear that bullying is wrong and encourage youth to stand up for those who are bullied -- they can't always do it themselves. Youth who walk away and get help are part of the solution. If they stay and watch, they are part of the problem. It's important for youth to understand the difference between reporting and tattling.
We can empower youth to be part of the solution by teaching them what they can do. Youth with safe and positive relationships will follow a healthy pathway leading to positive attachments in relationships, connection, caring, character, competence, academic achievement, civic engagement, self-efficacy, self-regulation, physical and mental health, citizenship, school engagement, and social capital.
On the other hand, youth who lack supportive and positive relationships will fall onto unhealthy pathways leading to a range of individual and relationship problems including: family violence, bullying, victimization, moral disengagement, dating aggression, school drop-out, delinquency, substance use, interpersonal violence (e.g., marital and child abuse), physical and mental health problems, unemployment, and crime.
Do we have what it takes to support our youth and youth to prevent bullying? I believe we do. But it's up to the adults to weigh in and create the healthy relationships that enable them to share what is happening online.