Many bully victims afraid to reach out for help

Post Primary Blog Clive ByrneThe revelation by Clare hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald, in an interview with Miriam O’Callaghan, that he was horribly bullied in school will surprise many. His description of an incident which took place on a bus where bullies pulled the shirt off his back and wrote on his body is shocking, while the incident he described of being invited to play in a game only to be kicked around and belittled made me wonder at our ability to inflict hurt and upset.

Bullying was different in Davy’s day because there was probably a sanctuary (hopefully home) you could retreat to but I’m sure neither he nor most of the victims of bullying said anything to a trusted adult. They suffered in silence but the effects of bullying on self-esteem and resilience are lifelong and potentially very damaging.

A headline in today’s Irish Independent announces that 1 in 7 teenagers has been bullied online in the last three months. This shows a darker side to growing up in Ireland.

Earlier this year, NAPD commissioned Amárach Research to conduct a survey aimed at gauging public attitudes to bullying. At the time there was considerable media coverage of cyber bullying but, despite that publicity, the survey found that only 12% of adults believe cyber bullying is worse than traditional forms of bullying. Four out of five adults, or 81%, believe the risk posed by each form of bullying (online and traditional) is equal in terms of its impact on the mental health of children. The remaining 7% believe traditional bullying poses the most serious threat to children’s mental health.

The survey concluded that bullying is bullying, whether conducted online or offline.

In a recent academic paper Dr Stephen Minton from Trinity College remarks that physical bullying seems more prevalent in males whereas exclusion type bullying seems more prevalent in females. How best to deal with the issue? The recent Anti-Bullying Procedures for Schools published by the Department of Education could help but may lead some people to believe that schools have all the answers.

When the NAPD survey was published earlier this year, many asked where best to assign responsibility for tackling bullying. Is it the responsibility of parents, teachers, principals, victims themselves, perpetrators, government, advocacy organisations and so on?

I believe we all have a role to play but colleagues tell me (and I have experienced it myself) that a particular difficulty can arise if parents are unrealistically over-protective of their own children and refuse to accept that their child could possibly be involved in bullying behaviour. I’m sure we’ve heard or come across incidents of neglect or lack of parental interest in some quarters and it’s good that parents will stand up for their child but if reasonable steps by the school to resolve the issue are thwarted by a blanket refusal by parents to cooperate with reasonable sanctions, then the school principal will find him/herself in a very awkward situation. This is especially problematic when it comes to the issue of smart phones and cyber space.

Undoubtedly, school students are far more advanced than their parents or teachers but I was interested to note Dr Minton’s view that, while modern day adolescents may be digital natives, their technological ability outstrips their emotional maturity and oftentimes the remote bullying made possible by the anonymity of the perpetrator can make the victim’s life hell.

There is no doubt that social media sites have made progress in tackling cyber bullying but I agree with Dr Minton when he maintains that parents need to take an active interest in their children’s online activity and monitor the sites they visit and the messages they post.

Colleagues also tell me that many children are suffering in silence, afraid to reach out to a friend, parent, or teacher in case their phone is confiscated. Cyber bullying, usually anonymous and impulsive with perpetrators feeling detached from victims and lacking any real sense of accountability or understanding, is a particularly insidious form of bullying.

School principals are already working hard to combat school bullying. However, with the march of technology, schools cannot control bullying beyond the classroom or playground.

Principals and teachers attempt to develop children’s confidence and skills in reporting bullying to a trusted adult. By reminding our children about their obligations to one another, schools can create the conditions in which bullying cannot thrive.  We can beat the bullies – so long as we confront them together. The reactions of over-protective parents who refuse to accept the reality of their child’s behaviour sometimes doesn’t help matters. Sometimes It’s almost as if parents are seeking to bully the principal into inaction – which sends a completely wrong signal to their child.

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