Uncovering the Truth of Bullying in New Zealand

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Bullying knows no boundaries as evidenced by the damaging effects it has caused in countries all over the world. Even a country as exotic and beautiful as New Zealand suffers from problems with bullying.

In its 2011 report assessing the learning experiences of 4,500 students around the globe, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study) revealed some startling facts about bullying in New Zealand.

New Zealand Bullying Rates Exceedingly High

Out of 50 countries that took part in the study, New Zealand ranked in 46th place, indicating that bullying rates in the country continue to be high. According to bullying statistics collected from the TIMSS study, approximately 31% of students aged 8 and 9 in New Zealand had suffered from bullying, not just once or twice, but on a weekly basis.

New Zealand has a history of bullying that goes back to 1994. Bullying has been a negative presence in the country for over 20 years. Since that time, schools have shown little progress in putting a stop to bullying behavior, particularly at the primary level.

When it came to bullying percentages for Year 5 students, the TIMSS study showed that New Zealand had higher bullying rates than 43 of the countries that participated in the survey. Such figures show that New Zealand still has a ways to go in controlling its bullying problem.

Dr. Simon Denny, associate professor at the University of Auckland and pediatrician at the Center for Youth Health, expressed his concern about the long term effects of bullying on the mental and emotional health of New Zealand youth. Bullying, in any form, is bound to affect a child or teen’s perspective of life and outlook for the future. Denny feels educating teens about the outcome of bullying may cause them to think twice about becoming involved in bullying acts.

“We need to teach young people what it’s like to be bullied and how to intervene and stop their peers from bullying or being bullied,” he says. “In that developmental stage, the peer group is so important and when you’re ostracised, it really hurts, when you’re trying to figure out who you are and find your place it can be devastating.”

Results from personal bullying studies conducted by Denny reveal that 6% of secondary students currently suffer from bullying weekly at school; 20-30% are victims of physical assault.

Teacher Perception of Bullying in New Zealand 

Dr. Vanessa Green, the head of Victoria’s School of Educational Psychology and Pedagogy, and some of her postgraduate students conducted a teacher survey to get more information about bullying from the perspective of school officials. Approximately 860 teachers and staff from primary through secondary schools across New Zealand were asked to share their personal experiences, insights and attitudes about bullying in their schools.

The following bullying facts from the survey show why school and political officials are so concerned about this behavior:

  • 94% of teachers in New Zealand report that bullying incidents occur in their school
  • Approximately 45% of teachers and staff said incidents of verbal and social/relational bullying were reported to them weekly
  • 25% received at least one report of physical abuse on a weekly basis
  • 46% of teachers and staff consider cyberbullying a threat among 11-14 year old students

These percentages reveal just how deeply bullying has integrated into New Zealand’s school system. They also expose the need for schools to work harder to enforce their anti-bullying policies and take a decisive course of action against bullying on school grounds.

Verbal Abuse Tops List of Bullying Behavior in New Zealand  

According to results from New Zealand’s CensusAtSchool/TataurangaKiTeKura project, verbal abuse seems to be the most common school bullying behavior. Over 36% of students aged 9-18 who participated in the census confirmed that verbal abuse occurred in their schools; 39% of secondary students felt verbal abuse was a bigger problem among older students than it was at the primary school level.

Although not delighted with the census results, Anne Patel, a CensusAtSchool team member, was pleased that the census provided greater insight into the problem. “As CensusAtSchool is anonymous and available to students in every school in the country, we are getting a unique student-eye view of (bullying’s) scale and prevalence,” she said.

Many teachers report that verbal bullying takes place mostly outside of the classroom. This makes it more difficult for teachers to keep up or control this behavior. Some examples of places where children may experience abusive behavior include the playground, bathrooms, on the school bus coming to school or on their way home after school – areas where there’s insufficient supervision by teachers or staff. Teachers also lack training in how to deal with bullying offenses, which could be another reason why verbal abuse is on the rise.

In addition to traditional bullying, the census revealed that cyberbullying was becoming a growing threat in many of New Zealand’s schools. Approximately 31% of high school students were concerned about the growing problem of cyberbullying in secondary schools.

When researchers compared bullying information from coed and same sex schools, they discovered that 32% of male students from co-ed schools considered cyberbullying a problem in their institution. In contrast, only 23% of male students from same sex schools thought cyberbullying was an issue in their learning environment. Results from female students in both types of schools were pretty much the same with 40% considering online bullying a menace in their schools.

The CensusAtSchool project takes place every four years and involves the help of teachers, members of the Department of Statistics from the University of Auckland, members of Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry of Education (MOE) to conduct its statistical studies. In 2015, over 18,392 primary, middle school and secondary students from 381 New Zealand schools participated in the census project.

New Zealand’s Answer to Bullying Problems

Despite efforts to curtail bullying behavior, primary bullying, middle school bullying and high school bullying continue to be a major issue in many New Zealand schools. The problem has become a stumbling block to students’ receiving the standard of education they deserve. In an effort to prevent bullying from overriding their society, New Zealand has launched a new anti-bullying initiative called Bullying-free New Zealand.

Bullying-free New Zealand

The Bullying-free New Zealand initiative embraces the philosophy of everyone working together to put an end to bullying in New Zealand schools. As proverbs play an intricate role in New Zealand’s Maori culture, the initiative incorporated the following whakataukī (proverb) into its anti-bullying message to rally support from all sectors of society.

“Cluster the branches of the mānuka (tree), so they will not break.” “Together with a shared vision, we know which direction to go, together we can prevent bullying in Aotearoa” (the Maori name for New Zealand).

In New Zealand, the mānuka tree is a symbol of new life, protection and strength in the growth of new forests. Just as this tree helps shelter and protect young plants so they can grow into fruition, the combined efforts of a community can help protect young lives from bullying so children have a chance to mature into healthy, productive adults.

Under the Bullying-free New Zealand initiative, schools would get the cooperation and support of parents, teachers, communities and whānau (extended family) to create positive, bully-free learning environments for their students.

The initiative is backed by the Bullying Prevention Advisory Group (BPAG) which consists of 17 agencies that are committed to combating bullying in New Zealand schools. The BPAG is comprised of representatives from all sectors of New Zealand society to include health, education, Internet safety, justice, social services and human rights groups.

The main focus of Bully-free New Zealand is to create safe and productive school environments where students can thrive socially and academically without the fear of being picked on or ostracized by their peers. Under this initiative, schools are provided with a bullying prevention and response guide that helps teachers understand the characteristics of bullying – i.e. why people bully, what causes bullying, how to stop bullying and how to handle bullying behavior. The program helps increase bullying awareness in schools so students will feel more confident in taking a stance against bullying acts.

Bullying-free NZ Week

On May 16-20, 2016, New Zealand celebrated its first Bullying-free NZ Week. During these five days, schools and local communities were encouraged to engage kids and adults in activities that promote kindness, friendship and helpfulness to give students a united vision of a bully-free school environment.

Bullying-free NZ Week also provided schools with an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of their anti-bullying programs and policies to see if they met their students’ needs. The week closed with Pink Shirt Day, an international anti-bullying event celebrated annually in countries all over the world.

Pink Shirt Day

Originating in 2007 in Canada, Pink Shirt Day was the brain child of Travis Price and David Shepherd, two Canadian students who launched this initiative as a stance against homophobic bullying. After seeing a fellow classmate harassed for wearing pink clothing, the boys purchased dozens of pink colored shirts and dispersed them among male students to emphasize the importance of tolerance and acceptance. The idea quickly spread and hundreds of classmates rallied on their behalf. Over time, other countries integrated the campaign into their no-bullying school programs.

In 2009, New Zealand schools joined the Pink Shirt Day campaign. The campaign was backed by such groups as The Peace Foundation, InsideOUT, NZ’s Mental Health Foundation, RainbowYOUTH and others. Pink Shirt Day represents solidarity against all forms of bullying and promotes diversity, positive relationships and mutual respect, regardless of a person’s gender, age, sexual orientation or ethnic background.

On Pink Shirt Day, students are encouraged to speak out against bullying, take a united stance against bullying behavior and do their part to put an end to bullying acts. By taking a united stance against bullying, parents, students and teachers help create a society where people care for one another, respect each other and value the contribution that others bring to their school and local community.

KiVa Anti-Bullying Program 

KiVa is yet another anti-bullying measure that schools in New Zealand are adopting to put an end to bullying abuse in primary schools. Originating in Finland, the KiVa program has been used extensively in Northern European schools. The program’s success rate in reducing bullying and advancing learning has encouraged countries outside of Europe to give it a try. In 2014, New Zealand began to introduce the program into its school system.

Deidre Vercauteren, manager of the educational consulting firm Accent Learning, took up the challenge of promoting KiVa in New Zealand’s primary schools. The program is based on decades of bullying research from bullying experts in Finland. The research includes studies on bully and bystander behavior and ways to engage young people in personal interactions.

The KiVa program is a whole school approach to combating bullying. This means the entire school is encouraged to participate in the program’s surveys, lessons, activities and games. Teachers and staff also receive special training on how to recognize bullying signs in their students and deal with bullying attacks.

According to Deidre, “The KiVa program provides schools with a systematic method for dealing with bullying issues as they arise and, most importantly, a step-by-step process to follow in order to prevent bullying. It’s not just a reaction to problems,” says Deidre, “it works in the background to reduce the number of bullying incidents.”

Left unresolved, bullying can seriously hinder children’s physical and emotional health as well as thwart their academic growth and development. The main focus of the KiVa program is to prevent bullying so kids can concentrate on their studies without worrying about being verbally or physically assaulted on school grounds. Through the program, kids learn how to have positive interactions and resolve differences without resorting to verbal abuse or violence.

The KiVa program works in conjunction with the ‘essential learning areas, values, principles and key competencies’ of New Zealand’s school curriculum. Victoria’s School of Education has been commissioned with the task of evaluating the effectiveness of the KiVa program in reducing bullying in primary schools.

A Look at Cyberbullying in New Zealand

Despite an increase in cyberbullying awareness in local schools and communities, online bullying continues to be an issue among New Zealand’s younger generation. A Sticks’nStones survey of approximately 750 children and teens aged 11-18 showed that 87% of young people felt cyberbullying was a problem; 255 of the students had personally experienced cyberbullying that year.

Recent studies on Internet bullying in New Zealand also reveal a marked increase of online bullying cases among adults. It was estimated that three out of every five women in the 18-19 year old age group had suffered from cyberattacks. An increase in cyberbullying activity was also reported among 30-59 year old netizens, with one out of every ten being targeted by bullies online. Twice that rate was reported for mid-to-late 20 year old adults.

A survey of 15,000 people inquiring if anyone had been hurt or embarrassed via the use of a digital camera, the Internet or mobile device revealed that 46% of 18-19 year old adults had been victims of such attacks. Females experienced greater cyberbullying offenses than males within that particular age group.

The following facts about cyberbullying compiled by the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) exposes the extent of cyberbullying activity among New Zealand’s adult population:

  • Of adults aged 20-24, approximately 27% reported being victims of bullying online
  • Of adults aged 25-29, about 22% were victims of cyberattacks
  • Of adults aged 30-59, between 9-13% said they had experienced bullying online

These percentages show that “(Cyberbullying) is definitely not just a young person’s problem,” said Martin Cocker, chief executive of NetSafe. Bullying information from the organization showed that approximately half of the 1,000 online bullying cases NetSafe handled in 2015 involved adults.

Nikki Wheeler, a student at Canterbury University, feels these figures will only rise as more adults join the world of digital technology. She also expressed her concern over the effect that online bullying was having on New Zealand society.

“Cyberbullying is becoming part of our everyday lives and it shouldn’t be,” Wheeler said. “… it’s an awful experience no one should have to live through. You become paranoid that everyone is against you and believes the same opinion as that of the bully.”

New Zealand Suicides Linked to Cyberattacks

Internet bullying often leaves tragic consequences in its wake for victims and their families. In New Zealand, children, teens and adults have all experienced the sad repercussions of cyberattacks.

Eighteen year old Ashleigh Smith was one of many New Zealanders who suffered the negative consequences of cyberbullying when she lost her cousin to an incident linked with bullying online. Her cousin’s death brought out the reality of the harm that Internet bullying could cause.

“Cyberbullying affects so many people throughout New Zealand,” she said. “It has so many consequences, including victims taking their own lives. It’s real, it’s happening all around us.”  Ashleigh’s loss as a result of cyberbullying continued to haunt her for years. “Four years later I still ask myself the ‘what if’ questions,” she says, “it is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

In September of 2015, a young teen girl from Auckland was hospitalized due to self-harm after experiencing bullying in school and online. Although the teen recovered physically, she may feel the psychological effects of her ordeal for years to come.

The girl’s mother discovered the bullying upon receiving a visit from a truancy officer at home. Apparently the young teen had been skipping school due to bullying incidents. Despite switching classes and talking to a school counselor, the girl continued to be bullied both at school and online. Sadly enough, she felt no other recourse but attempted suicide to put a stop to the bullies’ taunts.

Earlier this year (2016), 12 year old Kyana Vergara died of suspected suicide in her home in Palmerston North due to being bullied online. After her demise, family members found troubling posts on her social media account. Kyana was described as “the most caring, loving, happy girl that you could ever meet” by her sister Aundrea Denoon, who was taken aback by the tragedy. Apparently Kyana had kept the bullying incidents a well-guarded secret.

“She had so much to live for,” said her sister, “We were meant to be at her graduation and dance and give her away at her wedding. Most of all, she was meant to have a family of her own. She will now never get that chance because a bully does not realise how much their works and actions can affect someone.”

Cyberbullying can Lead to Psychiatric Problems

One of cyber bullies’ most malicious tactics is to convince their victims that their lives are not worth living. At the end of their insulting comments or texts, they post messages that urge people to hurt themselves or take their own lives.

Since 2014, Dunedin Social Services had been receiving reports of teens requiring psychiatric care after being told repeatedly on social media to kill themselves. In one incident, a 14 year old student received over 100 negative posts, many of which urged him to kill himself, after his gay identity was exposed online. The teen dropped out of school and eventually entered a psychiatric ward to counter the emotional trauma of this malicious cyberbullying campaign.

In another case, a 15 year old teen found a list of suicide tips and links on his Tumblr page. He later tried to take his life. As most teens have a presence on social media, this platform is readily used against young people for launching cyberattacks. Over the last few years, news stories have emerged of teen suicides in New Zealand that had been attributed to bullying online.

New Zealand is known for having high youth suicide rates, especially among men. Social media has been used to provoke young people to attempt suicide or commit acts of self-harm. In some instances, suicide based ‘clubs’ or communities have sprung up on social sites, ‘glamorizing’ this action. Young people who feel they have nowhere to turn when bullied can easily be duped into thinking suicide is the only way out.

Lee Chisholm, education specialist for NetSafe, feels there’s a great need for change in the way young people interact with each other online. “We need to shift to a culture of being kind to each other,” he said. “It’s not OK to tell people to harm themselves. In fact, it’s now law that you can’t. But online tools have created a ‘disconnect’ between what we write and what happens at the other end.”

According to Chisholm, cyberbullying victims need to be encouraged to report cyber offenses so that parents, teachers or school counselors can help. Chisholm feels New Zealand young people need greater support from adults when bullying happens. He also cautions young people about “liking” hurtful comments or ignoring them as that makes teens part of the problem. Young people need to take a stance against online bullying by supporting victims rather than joining in on the act.

According to Patrick Walsh, a member of the Online Safety Advisory Group in New Zealand, most teens don’t report cyberbullying activities as they don’t want to snitch on their peers. However, teens need to realize the serious trouble that online bullying can cause. In some cases, cyberbullying actions may even be criminal, especially if they result in someone getting hurt or dying. Walsh believes parents should take greater interest in their kids’ activities online and discourage them from keeping secrets when it comes to cyberbullying acts.

In 2015, New Zealand adopted a new law specifically to counter cyberbullying acts. Prosecution of cyberbullying cases would depend on the circumstances of the incident. According to Senior Constable Garry Boles of the Counties Manukau police district:

“Going to court would be pretty extreme, but depending on the bully’s age they may have a youth aid file created and get a warning letter – and that might be enough to get them to stop.” At least, “that will show (offenders) it can go from cyberbullying in the bedroom where no one can see you, to police knocking at the front door.” Constable Boles reiterates the importance of victims coming forward and reporting cyberbullying offenses so action can be taken to put a stop to cyberattacks.

Organizations to Contact for Bullying Support and Advice

There are various public and private organizations in New Zealand offering assistance to cyberbullying victims and their families. Those who need support, counseling or advice in regards to bullying can contact any one of the following groups:

Kidsline – provides phone counseling to children and teens up to 14 years of age. Children can call Kidsline at 0800 54 3754 from 4 to 6 pm, Monday-Friday, and talk to a trained teen counselor who can help them through their bullying ordeal. For more information, parents can peruse the Kidsline website at www.kidsline.org.nz.

Youthline – Any young person needing help or support with bullying issues can contact the Youthline helpline at 0800 37 66 33 (Free Text 234) or send an email at E [email protected] For more information, people can visit their website at:  www.youthline.co.nz (external link)

Lifeline – provides a 24/7 phone counseling service for individuals dealing with bullying problems. Callers will be connected to an experienced Lifeline counselor who can provide them with the help and support they need. All calls are free and confidential. Lifeline phone:    522 2999 (within Auckland) and 0800 543 354 (outside of Auckland). Lifeline website:   www.lifeline.org.nz (external link)

NetSafe Cyberbullying – NetSafe provides parents, students and teachers with valuable information about cyberbullying and safe usage of social sites. People can learn more at the following website: www.cyberbullying.org.nz (external link)

Suicide Crisis Helpline – Individuals who need help sorting out feelings of self-harm or suicide due to bullying activities can call this helpline 24/7 at 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Counselors are always available to provide the help and support people need.

Cyberbullying: A Crime in New Zealand

It’s a proven fact that cyberbullying has contributed to New Zealand’s high suicide rate among young students. In some instances, children as young as 9 or 10 years old have attempted suicide due to cyberbullying attacks. Children who have easy access to mobile devices or social media are more susceptible to injury and harm from bullying online. After facing so many cyberbullying tragedies, New Zealand has finally taken legal measures to help stop this threat.

The adoption of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill in 2015 officially made cyberbullying a criminal offense in New Zealand for the first time. Under the statues of this new law, cyber offenders face the risk of paying a substantial fine for their offenses and/or spending time in jail.

The bill passed New Zealand’s Parliament by a substantial margin – 116 votes for the legislation vs 5 against. The Harmful Digital Communications Bill covers all forms of electronic communications to include online posts on social media or other websites, text messages, videos, photos, theft of personal information and more. The bill also gives a clear definition of what kind of activity can be construed as harmful and describes in detail what’s considered an “intimate visual recording” so there’s no misunderstanding of malicious acts.

In regards to inciting people to attempt suicide, the law says: “A person commits an offence who incites, counsels, or procures another person to commit suicide, even if that other person does not commit or attempt to commit suicide in consequence of that conduct.”

Offenders of this suicide clause can receive a maximum prison sentence of three years. Those who commit other cyberbullying offenses run the risk of imprisonment for two years and/or paying a fine of up to $50,000NZ. The bill also provides a provision for removing offensive materials from websites under the oversight of a government agency which will be established for this purpose.

Few countries around the world have explicit cyberbullying laws against digital technology offenses. Most rely on current legislation that covers online discrimination or harassment to counter cyberbullying acts. By passing the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, New Zealand took a major step forward in protecting its netizens against cyberattacks.

Workplace Bullying in New Zealand 

In addition to school bullying and bullying online, New Zealand faces a distinct problem with bullying among its workforce. Workplace bullying has become an occupational hazard in many places of employment in New Zealand. Office bullying not only causes mental and emotional distress, but disrupts the business culture by lowering the morale of employees and reducing productivity.

New Zealand has various laws in place to deal with bullying on the job. These include:

  • The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992
  • The Employment Relations Act 2000 and
  • The Human Rights Act 1993

By not handling bullying cases at work promptly and effectively, employers run the risk of breaching any one of these laws.

With the enactment of the WorkSafeNZ initiative, the prospect of workplace bullying is being scrutinized even more carefully in the country. Under WorkSafe NZ, specific guidelines have been issued to employers specifying how they should handle bullying complaints. These guidelines clarify what constitutes bullying, how to prevent bullying and how to deal with bullying incidents that arise. The guidelines clearly define workplace bullying for the first time in the country, setting precedence for employers, workers and courts to proceed in the event legal action is required to settle bullying cases.

According to WorkSafeNZ guidelines, bullying in the workplace is defined as “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.” Such behavior encompasses intimidation, humiliation, victimization and threats.

Under the guidelines, employers should look out for such bullying indicators as

  • Staff complaints
  • Absenteeism
  • Drop in productivity
  • Increase in grievances and
  • Sudden resignations

to reveal bullying problems. Failure to deal with bullying issues can lead to legal action against employers. WorkSafe NZ also recommends employers institute company policies that protect employees from bullying acts to include clauses on how businesses will handle claims of bullying on the job.

Bullying issues have complicated the lives of New Zealanders for years. School bullying has taken its toll on children and teens’ academic and social standing, holding them back from achieving all that they could. Cyberbullying has ruined or claimed the lives of countless youth and is currently making headway into the adult population. Workplace bullying has lowered the standard of New Zealand’s work culture, fostered discontent among employees and hindered productivity.

Through new anti-bullying legislation and initiatives, New Zealand is beginning to fight back in an attempt to reclaim its quality of life. Having felt the devastating effects of bullying, the country recognizes the importance of taking a united stance against this abusive behavior in its schools, on the Internet and in the business environment.

By rallying in support of the Bully-free New Zealand and WorkSafe NZ initiatives and backing the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, New Zealanders can move forward in ridding their society of bullying and building a culture based on unity, tolerance and respect.

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