From Schoolgate To Screen

3rd October 2014

Almost half of children and young people say they have been bullied
at school at some point in their lives. Heather Harris investigates .

As a society we are now so much more aware that acts of intimidation – both verbal and physical – occur, that it seems particularly shocking to me that 46% of children and young people still say that they have been experienced bullying at school.

While the UK lags behind the US in that there is no legal definition of bullying, all schools and colleges do have to have a written policy on how to deal with both perpetrator and victim. There are also an increasing number of national agencies including the charity BeatBullying, Childline, the NSPCC and CEOPS (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) who all have a mandate to try and reduce this behaviour which, to quote the BeatBullying mission statement, “Contradicts the basic values of fair play, social justice, aspiration, opportunity and respect”.

Think it’s just a school problem? Think again. BeatBullying also adds ‘It is something the whole nation must act collectively to eradicate, so we can really support the millions of young people who lie in bed at night terrified to go to school the next morning’…

…or, as the mother of one nine year old boy told me, “Every morning was a battle. He would never tell me what was wrong, just that he felt poorly. Finally his friends confessed they were too scared to tell us that he was being picked on for having ginger hair.”

Ironically, in this technological age where young people can get access to each other at the click of a keyboard 24 hours a day, this traditional ‘school gate teasing’ remains the most common starting point for all forms of intimidation. Most parents and children I spole to echoed this. “I stopped going out at lunchtime, as I knew in the library I was safe and they couldn’t tease me,” a young relative told me recalling her early days at a new school when her uniform hadn’t arrived so she had to go in her previous school’s kit.

Two thousand 12-18 year olds were interviewed about their school experience as part of Dairy UK’s ‘Make Mine Milk’ campaign, and over half said they had been ‘bullied or picked on for the way they look’.

Not surprisingly, girls were more likely to be on the receiving end of bullying based on appearance (52%) than their male school friends (44%), but the reasons were surprisingly consistent across both sexes: general appearance (including hair, glasses and braces), weight, spots and clothes – in that order.

Interestingly, these issues have remained the same for generations; my perceived idea that having (or not having) the latest phone or gadget had now replaced them in importance was wrong.

As Catherine Collins, Principle Dietician at St George’s Hospital in London, explained, “As a mother of teenagers, I know first hand that young people are incredibly image-conscious, and professionally it’s sad to see that these concerns are being exacerbated by image-related bullying.”

And being on the receiving end of such taunts can in turn manifest itself in serious eating disorders – for both young girls and boys. That’s not to say that all red heads or overweight children will become victims. It does depend on their individual self confidence – but, as a general rule, schools acknowledge that there continues to be a well worn pattern: anything which marks a child out from the pack is recognised as a danger sign.

As Chris Hayward, Hertfordshire County Council's Cabinet Member for Education, told me, “Most bullying focuses on how people are perceived to be different in some way. This remains unchanged.”

At the extreme end of the scale, this translates into illegal racist or homophobic behaviour but for children it can simply involve a slight movement away from the norm.

The father of a 5’ 11” tall 16-year-old agreed. “My daughter’s self confidence dropped almost in direct proportion to how much she grew. I am sure jealousy was at the root of the bullying, as it stopped when others in her class caught her up.”

All anti-bullying agencies and experts agree that jealousy is a powerful motive and the perpetrators often do not realise the effect their behaviour is having.

As Stephen Johnson, Deputy Headteacher at Watford Grammar School for Girls, told me, “We put initial emphasis on stopping the bullying. The bully is told by a senior member of staff the effect she is having on the other girl (we assume she is unaware of this and tell her so that the claim of innocence through ignorance is denied her) and that she is required now to stop.”

It’s very direct, and it pulls no punches. “It is stressed to the bully that no-one is responsible for any punishment or sanctions that are applied except herself. It is nothing to do with her victim.”

This approach is applauded by the charities who deal directly with victims – such as Childline, where last year 31,599 children called specifically about bullying. So often the victims are scared of telling their schools for fear of making the situation worse as the bully blames them for any subsequent punishment.

At least, though, with face-to-face incidences, there is someone to tell, and someone to identify. It’s much harder to deal with being victimised when the perpetrator can hide behind an anonymous ‘screen name’.

Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon – a hideous by-product of the computer age, where there is no hiding place. No longer can staying in the library at lunchtime keep the bullies away, as they’re there lurking at the touch of a button on the victim’s laptop or even their mobile phone.

Girls are twice as likely to experience cyberbullying as boys and it begins when they are as young as eight. Yes, you read that correctly. Eight.

As Emma-Jane Cross, CEO of the BeatBullying charity, revealed, “Our recent research has shown that one in 10 primary school–aged children have experienced persistent and intentional bullying inflicted via technology, which equates to 272,026 eight to 11 year old in the UK.”

Not surprisingly, given that this intimidation takes places using the numerous forms of ‘social media’, it is less likely to be between individuals.

As Stephen Johnson explains, “It operates worse when the medium is communal or allows the words of one girl about another to be broadcast by a third party in order to stir up trouble. Some cyber-bullying, bizarrely, is not personal in that sense; it is orchestrated by girls who have no real problem with the victim, but who wish simply to stir up trouble by passing on threats or insults in the feigned semblance of friendship with the target.”

A friend recently recounted a conversation she had with her 15 year old daughter, who was totally distraught that her confidential views on another girl had now become public all over Facebook. “She just couldn’t understand why the friend she trusted would break her confidence and also, just like Chinese whispers but with much more sinister consequences, her words had been distorted and exaggerated. What had been just a bit of innocent private gossip had been blown into an act of cyberbullying, with my daughter unintentionally the perpetrator.”

It has become all too common for this public humiliation on social media to be revealed as the motive at recent inquests into teenage suicides, with the parents often totally ignorant of the suffering their child has been experiencing.

A major report entitled Virtual Violence: Progress and Challenges in the Fight against Cyberbullying said this: ‘A serious and concerning finding pertains to parental responsibility and their lack of involvement in their children’s activities online. Nearly two thirds of parents questioned (63%) do not supervise their children on-line and it is perhaps unsurprising that children are encountering difficulties.’

As a mother of three teenagers I hold my hand up. It is perhaps all too easy to argue – as I do – that it is impossible to monitor what they are doing on their mobile phones. I appease my guilt by not allowing lap tops in bedrooms but even this is becoming increasingly difficult to enforce, as more and more homework now requires internet access.

Since reading this report, though, what I have done is ask more questions about what they are accessing on-line. I have also discussed the whole issue of cyberbullying.

Education is now widely acknowledged as the most powerful weapon in the battle against all forms of bullying – from school-gate to screen. Children need to be shown the newspaper headlines and be made aware of the extreme consequences for both the bully and the victim.

Intimidation on screen relies on secrecy and anonymity so BeatBullying advises victims who call their helpline to print off copies of anything they see online which concerns them and show it to an adult.

Hertfordshire County Council also offers a whole range of training and support for schools on both e-safety and anti- bullying. As Chris Hayward points out, “As most cyberbullying takes place outside school, it is important for schools to engage parents in understanding risks to their child’s safety online, so information sessions are also available for parents.”

Emma-Jane Cross from BeatBullying is also calling for the addition of e-safety to the primary school national curriculum. “As we teach young children how to behave and keep themselves safe in new environments offline such as the park, the street and even the home, [so] we must educate them about how to stay safe and behave in the online environment.”

In life there will always be bullies. We can only hope that with the right teaching, future generations will make sure that intimidation remains at the school gate where it can be policed and not spread its tentacles with tragic consequences into vulnerable young minds at the click of a key.

Our thanks go to Watford Grammar School for Girls for their contribution. A number of other local schools were contacted for their comments but did not respond.

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