Anti-bullying campaigns: doing more harm than good?

ESSAY: Of course extreme cases of bullying should be tackled, but let’s not pathologise normal childhood relationships.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

According to figures released by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) last week – to launch Britain’s anti-bullying week – one in four children has been ‘verbally bullied’ in the past year. The annual anti-bullying week is an initiative launched by the ABA, founded in 2002 by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the National Children’s Bureau. The aim of this year’s anti-bullying week was to challenge the old ‘sticks and stones’ adage with the slogan ‘Stop and think – words can hurt’. 

Commenting on the findings, Ross Hendry, chair of the ABA, said: ‘These figures highlight how much of a problem verbal bullying is.’ But considering ‘verbal bullying’ is defined as anything from name-calling to the ‘casual use of derogatory language’ could one not equally argue that these figures highlight how sanitised playgrounds have become? Surely in the course of a whole year the vast majority of children have at some point been at the receiving end of hurtful putdowns, name-calling or other ‘casual derogatory language’?

Alternatively, the findings could indicate that the majority of children don’t share the current obsession with bullying – and the flabby definition used by the anti-bullying industry – and quickly forget verbal putdowns, name-calling and other ‘derogatory language’ (even if they were deeply distressing at the time) without categorising themselves as the victims of bullying. Or – bearing in mind that this is advocacy research – the figures may not tell us very much at all.

The anti-bullying industry continually warns us that bullying is widespread and has a devastating effect. Those who don’t take its messages seriously risk being branded ignorant and complacent. The conclusion is always that much more needs to be done to combat bullying. Few people are prepared to challenge these assumptions. I would argue that the messages emanating from the anti-bullying industry are not only unhelpful and depressing, but damaging.

Firstly, they present a very negative view of children: portraying them either as nasty little brutes or as helpless victims. Children’s relationships with other children are assumed to be damaging, and children are tacitly encouraged to look upon their peers with trepidation and suspicion. Consequently there is a raft of behavioural codes that now regulate playground behaviour, and an increasingly interventionist role for adults in children’s disputes.

And as more and more forms of behaviour are labelled as ‘bullying’, more and more children become labelled as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’. On its website, the ABA describes bullying as the ‘repetitive, intentional hurting of one person by another, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power’. ‘Means of bullying’ may involve ‘pushing, hitting, punching, kicking’, or ‘yelling abuse at another, name-calling, insulting someone, using verbal threats’, as well as ‘spreading rumours, social exclusion, [or] disclosing another’s secrets to a third party’. Is it any wonder that the ABA finds that the prevalence of bullying is so high?

Beat Bullying, one of the ABA’s member organisations, states on its website: ‘Bullying is not just a problem for a minority of children; it is a widespread problem that can affect the culture and climate of a whole school.’ Pointing to findings from the 2006 National Bullying Survey – described as ‘the largest, most comprehensive survey of its kind’ – Beat Bullying tells us ‘69 per cent of children in the UK report being bullied’, and ‘87 per cent of parents reported that their child had been bullied in the past 12 months’. The survey may have been large, but it was not comprehensive or representative: it was a self-selected internet survey. The high proportion of children claiming to have been bullied could be explained by those children being bullied being more likely to take part in such a survey. There is quite a discrepancy between the claims made by the anti-bullying industry and research published in peer-reviewed journals.

In a 2010 meta-analysis – that is, a statistical technique for reviewing a large number of peer-reviewed research studies – assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, Clayton Cook, and colleagues found that ‘between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of children and youth are involved in bullying’. The prevalence rates vary significantly as a function of how bullying is measured, they point out. These rates are a lot lower than most anti-bullying campaigns claim. But the peer-reviewed research on bullying also has a number of limitations [see box below for a summary]. It is likely that the prevalence rates reported in peer-reviewed research exaggerate the problem as well.

There is little to back up the overblown claims by the anti-bullying industry about how widespread bullying is or about how far-reaching and devastating the effects of bullying are. The reality is that the evidence for a long-term effect of bullying is not there. That does not mean that it doesn’t have a negative effect on some individuals. But equally it may have a positive effect on others. Without a doubt some children can and do come out of difficult situations stronger and more resilient.

Some childhood experiences are extremely hurtful. I do find it heartbreaking when my six-year-old son, who we adopted two years ago and who understandably finds rejection hard to deal with, is reduced to floods of tears because he has been told by another child that ‘I’m not your friend any more’ or has been excluded from his gang of ‘bros’ because of losing all the races against the other ‘bros’. But the fact that he is devastated does not mean that these experiences are harmful. He, like all children, needs to learn to deal with rejection. Nobody is likely to go through life never experiencing rejection of any sort.

Melissa Witkow, assistant professor of psychology at Willamette University, carried out a large-scale study with colleagues, investigating the effect of hostile relationships on children’s development. ‘While the study of reciprocated friendships has a long tradition, mutual antipathies, or mutual dislikes, have only recently begun to be investigated’, the authors of the study write (1). Much of the research to date has found that mutual friendships are associated with positive outcomes. It is generally assumed that having enemies, or mutual dislikes, may have the opposite effect – being associated with negative outcomes. But Witkow and colleagues found that the effects of children’s positive and negative relationships were a lot more complex than previously indicated. In fact, their study found that having ‘mutual antipathies’ was associated with ‘fewer signs of maladjustment’ (2). In other words, it may be perfectly healthy to dislike, and show your dislike, of certain children, who in turn may reciprocate the feeling.

Also, as adults it is perfectly normal not to like certain people. There are some people we will go out of our way to help, and others we will go out of our way to avoid. Similarly it is fine for children not to like all their classmates and peers, and to gravitate to some and not others. ‘As adults, there are people we don’t like, but we’re not beating them up. We’re not harassing them. A lot of adults think that kids should only have positive relationships, but that’s not possible’, Witkow told Time magazine.

Similarly, it is perfectly healthy to express negative thoughts or emotions. In a review of the literature on aggression, William Bukowski, professor of psychology at Concordia University, and Maurissa Abecassis, associate professor at Colby-Sawyer College, argue that the use of aggression – whether verbal or physical – is a normal part of growing up. They write: ‘Who has not felt the need to return an insult when insulted first, to make a joke at another’s expense, to tell a lie, gossip a little, or to engage in some private glee when a disliked other has experienced a setback?’ (3).

Of course there are times when aggression may indicate that a child is not coping. ‘Children who characteristically respond to a variety of emotions by acting aggressively probably have a narrow repertoire and limited set of problem-solving skills’, they write (4). But equally, a child who never shows aggression may struggle in later life. Bukowski and Abecassis found that ‘The overuse as well as the complete absence of aggression may be maladaptive’. Would it really help the child who overused aggression if they were to be labelled a ‘bully’? Giving them such a label could create a more permanent wedge between them and the children at the receiving end of their aggression.

Children – especially young children – can be embarrassingly thoughtless. For instance, my daughter, at three years of age, blurted out ‘Look at that fat lady’ as a woman passed us in a supermarket doorway. Our natural instinct is to tell children ‘you shouldn’t say that’. And, of course, as parents and teachers we should try to ensure children learn to accept and abide by the morals and mores of our society. But we also need to accept that children are emotionally and socially unsophisticated. They will make many mistakes along the way. They do not have the same capacity to empathise and understand other people’s perspectives as adults do. They will often get frustrated when they don’t get their way and will use physical and verbal aggression to try to get what they want.

Their social, emotional and moral development is a long and bumpy road – with much anger, frustration and anxiety, but also excitement, pride and sheer joy – along the way. Children need to learn how to handle both positive and negative emotions. We cannot – and should not – insulate them from negative emotions such as anger, sadness, loneliness, fear or embarrassment. Nor should we give them the impression that if they feel any of these emotions they may be ‘scarred for life’. If the behaviour of one or more children evokes negative emotions in another child – be it embarrassment, unhappiness, frustration or fear – it does not mean that these children should be labelled as ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’.

Children’s relationships are a lot more complicated than the anti-bullying industry implies. We are told schools must adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying. But such an approach is deeply problematic. It suggests that whenever a child feels picked on or victimised, their troubles – whatever they may be – can be resolved in an instant by a third party. It teaches nothing about the complexity of friendships, enemies and relationships in general. It says nothing of the fact there will be some people in life you will struggle to get along with. It implies that a person has the right to expect everyone they meet to be unfailingly pleasant and kind. And when, inevitably, that doesn’t happen it suggests we have the right to have our differences ‘stamped out’ by a figure of authority.

A ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying also cultivates a culture of victimhood: if a child feels upset by other children’s actions or comments, they are encouraged to see themselves as the victim of bullying and go straight to a teacher at the first sign of trouble. In fact, the ABA’s advice for children and young people includes the statements: ‘Bullying is not your fault. It is always wrong and you do not have to put up with it’ and ‘Be confident – you have done nothing to deserve this’.

The ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying is not only problematic, it is also dishonest. There is nothing straightforward about minimising, never mind wiping out, behaviours that are having a negative effect on a child. Firstly, it is very difficult to determine when aggression constitutes ‘bullying’ and when it is a perfectly healthy response to a particular situation. Secondly, when a child is clearly suffering, it is not at all straightforward to work out how to make the situation better for that child.

Some children have a horrible time at school: they may dread going to school on a daily basis, be deeply unhappy and socially isolated. But how do we help make that situation better for that child? Not through the blunt instrument of anti-bullying policies, that’s for sure. There is no magic bullet.

In fact, the large-scale review of bullying research carried out by Clayton Cook and colleagues showed that the success of anti-bullying programmes has been limited. ‘Even when programs have an impact, the improvement appears to be changing children’s knowledge and perceptions, not bullying behaviour’ they write. Similarly, a large-scale study in Sheffield in the 1990s found that of the four schools that had implemented whole-school anti-bullying interventions, two of the schools had experienced a decline in bullying and two schools had seen a significant rise (5).

I am not arguing teachers and parents should turn their backs on the young and let them sink or swim. But we should be more honest in acknowledging that what goes on in the playground is a lot more complicated than the caricatured idea that there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ or ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’. Seeing a child shunned by their peers, looking lost and lonely in the playground, is heartbreaking. But labelling that child a ‘victim’ of bullying may make the situation worse. It is possible that by intervening adults make the situation worse. It is also possible adults could help sort the situation out. But how to do so is far from straightforward.

The people who will know best whether and how to intervene are teachers – who in most cases will know their pupils fairly well and have some sense of the playground dynamics. The anti-bullying industry’s tick-box approach to what is and is not acceptable behaviour will not be at all helpful. Neither will their trite message ‘Say NO to bullying’.

All I can conclude is that we need to do away with anti-bullying awareness campaigns and anti-bullying policies. They are blunt instruments that often label children as ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’. And the obsession with bullying is putting obstacles in the way of children learning – through unsupervised play – to deal with rejection, ‘roll with the punches’, resolve conflicts, learn to negotiate, and develop into more resilient, capable adults.

We have a duty to guide the young on their path to adulthood, but let’s give them the opportunities they need to learn how to make and maintain friendships, deal with people they like as well as those they don’t like, and handle difficult situations and difficult emotions. And let’s not go in with the great big sledgehammer of ‘zero tolerance on bullying’. Some children in some circumstances do need protection. But most benefit from a little exposure to the knocks that life will inevitably deliver.

Peer-reviewed research on bullying

Over the last decade there has been more than a six-fold increase in published peer-reviewed research on bullying. It should be pointed out that although the peer-reviewed research does tend to be a lot more systematic than advocacy research, it also has a number of limitations, the most obvious being the myriad different definitions and measures of bullying used. Also, many – if not most – of the studies are based on self-report questionnaires, which are widely recognised among researchers as having a number of shortcomings, including ‘social desirability bias’, where participants answer in a way that will portray them in a good light.

Many of the peer-reviewed studies make claims about the long-term effects of bullying when the methodology used is not longitudinal. That is, they have not investigated long-term effects by following up the participants over several years. Their claims about future effects are merely inferred from associations their studies have found between bullying and concomitant factors, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, depression or academic achievement.

Bearing in mind these limitations, what has the research on bullying purportedly found?

In a 2010 meta-analysis – that is, a statistical technique for reviewing a large number of existing research studies – assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, Clayton Cook, found the ‘risk of adversity’ was found to be greater for ‘bully/victims’ (that is, those who both bully and have been bullied) than for either ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’. Those involved in bullying – as ‘victim’, ‘bullies’ or ‘bully/victims’ – tended to have ‘poorer problem-solving skills’ than children not involved in bullying. They also found differences between the groups: ‘bullies’ were more at risk of having ‘poor academic performance’ and ‘holding negative attitudes and beliefs about others’; ‘victims’ were more at risk of ‘possessing negative attitudes and beliefs about themselves’; and being a ‘bully/victim’ ‘was associated with having the most severe challenges in social competence of all the groups’.

But it is far from clear from these studies whether there is a causal relationship between being a ‘bully’, ‘victim’ or ‘bully/victim’ and having ‘adverse behavioural and psychological outcomes’. There may well be a causal relationship, but we don’t know from the data the direction of the causal relationship (if there is one). It could be that children with particular problems are more likely to become ‘bullies’, ‘victims’ or ‘bully/victims’. Or it could it be that by being involved in bullying children are more likely to experience a number of other difficulties.

One also has to bear in mind the difficulty in eliminating subjective influence on research about human beings and human relationships. When looking into the effect on children of bullying it is easy to come up with harmful consequences – if that is what is being looked for. The possibility that there may be positive outcomes is often not considered by researchers, and thereby the results are distorted.

Helene Guldberg is author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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Topics Politics


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