Why does bullying continue?
Bullying continues to occur as a result of a number of factors, both individual and social. It is important that we understand that bullying is a learned form of behaviour. By that we mean that students are not born bullying – or to be ‘’bullies’’. It is not inevitable that they will spend their lives doing so.
This raises the question: where and how is bullying learned? The answer is complex, as bullying behaviour may be learned in many ways and contexts.
ABUSE OF POWER
We know that bullying is linked to other forms of aggression that exist on a continuum, all of which share the following definition: an abuse of power exercised with the intention to dominate another person. Young people may learn to bully through various experiences of abuse and powerlessness which they encounter to different degrees throughout their lives.
For example, as adults we have power over young people that we strive to use in a positive way to ensure young people’s health and wellbeing. In some cases, adults may inadvertently use their power in ways that compromise the healthy development of children and youth in their care, exerting control to meet their own needs at the young person’s expense; in other cases, this is intentional. Abuse of adult power in any form is known as “adultism”. Child abuse in all its manifestations is an extreme example of adultism.
Common forms of adultism which may occur in daily life are:
- Holding a double standard of behaviour for young people and adults (for example, behaviour that is acceptable for an adult, such as assertiveness, is viewed as impolite in the case of a young person);
- Making decisions that affect young people’s lives without involving, informing or consulting them;
- Limiting or eliminating opportunities for discussion and self-expression among young people.
CYCLE OF ABUSE
Some young people who experience abuse may go on to abuse others, having learned through observation and experience that there are only two modes of relating to others: either as victim or aggressor. Rather than remain powerless, and perhaps as an outlet for their anger, they seek power over others, thereby perpetuating a cycle of abuse. Many choose to break this cycle by seeking help or making a conscious choice to stand up against all forms of abuse, including bullying.
The cycle of abuse may also be perpetuated through cultural messages - at home, at school, in our communities or in our larger society. At the root of bullying is the association of differences with vulnerability, inferiority and weakness. Young people learn attitudes that foster bullying when differences are met with hostility, hatred and fear.
BLAMING THE PERSON WHO IS BULLIED
Bullying and the cycle of abuse are also perpetuated by a common tendency in our society to “blame the victim”. This tendency is manifested when we focus our attention and our efforts to stop an act of bullying on the person who is bullied, inciting them to change their behaviour or way of acting (a clear example is when students who are bullied are perceived as “different” or “strange”.) We may also label or judge the bullied person as weak, passive or vulnerable, sometimes as a way of “explaining” their victimization.
Our tendency to blame those who are targeted is exacerbated when the person who is responsible for the bullying has high status in our society (or among their peers at school), and when they make excuses for their behaviour (“it was just a joke”). Witnesses and even bullied students may back up the student who bullies by justifying their excuses (often in an effort to protect themselves).
Bullying (and all forms of abuse) is an abuse of power with the intent to harm that is entirely unacceptable in any form and in every case. The person who bullies is always responsible for their behaviour; no act of bullying can ever be justified. No one ever deserves to be bullied.
CHALLENGING THE CODE OF SILENCE
One of the biggest obstacles to ending bullying - and all forms of aggression - is secrecy. Those who bully force those they target, along with the witnesses, to keep the bullying a secret. They may do so through explicit threats of retaliation should the ‘’code of silence’’ be broken.
This is one of the most important reasons why very few students ever tell anyone when they experience or witness bullying. Unfortunately, this allows the unequal power dynamics inherent in a bullying situation to become ever more deeply rooted, and feeds the entrenchment of fear, shame and guilt.
THE ETHICS OF “TELLING”: YOUTH CULTURE
The fear of being accused of “ratting” or labelled a “snitch” is a significant component of teen culture. It can be useful to remind students that while those who bully may seem very powerful, in reality, those who denounce such behaviour, whether they are young or not so young, are greater in number. We can encourage these students to join together with others who think as they do, rather than expecting young people who are living in fear to stand up to bullying on an individual basis.
The key is to ensure that students who are bullied or who witness bullying have access to reliable and concrete adult help.
“TATTLING VERSUS TELLING”: CHILD CULTURE
Younger students are discouraged from “tattling” by their peers and sometimes by adults. The following definitions (excerpted from the 2002 book The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, by Barbara Coloroso) can enable students and adults to learn to differentiate between the different ways of reacting to a bullying situation:
Telling on what someone did in order to get them in trouble.
Telling about what someone did to get help when you or someone you know is being hurt, or when your rights or their rights to be safe, strong and free are being taken away.
It is important to acknowledge and honour the risk students take when they tell us about a bullying situation – whether they are being bullied, witnessing bullying, or bullying others. Respecting students’ confidentiality and guarding their anonymity (wherever possible) is pivotal to creating a safe environment for telling.
We can begin to break the cycle of violence by lifting the destructive shroud of secrecy that allows bullying to take root and grow. A key step in this direction is to ensure that students can safely tell adults when they or someone they know is being bullied.