In Expert Interviews

Interview: School Bullying in the UK

School Bullying

Peter K Smith is an Emeritus Professor at the Unit for School and Family Studies in Goldsmiths College, University of London, U.K.  He speaks to about School Bullying and the role of schools in fighting Bullying

NB:Is school bullying as big an issue today as it was say 10 years ago?

Yes – in fact it has been a big issue for some 20 years, certainly in the UK and a number of other European countries. Once awareness was raised about it, it has stayed in the limelight. This is understandable, as it is something parents are concerned about, and politicians and the media do take note of this. However continuing campaigns, pressure groups, and organisations such as the Anti-Bullying Alliance and Beatbullying (in the UK) have helped to keep the issue on the agenda.

NB:Do you see a difference in how bullying happens today – for example, social media, mobile phones. school bullying?

This century has seen a rise in cyber bullying, or bullying using mobile phones and the internet. This has been compared with traditional bullying – physical hitting, damaging belongings, verbal taunts, social exclusion, rumour spreading. (The terms online and offline bullying are also used).

Cyber bullying is now a focus of major concern as well as research. It differs from traditional bullying in a number of ways – for example it is more often anonymous; it is more of an ‘out-of-school’ and 24/7 phenomenon, even for young people; and there can be a much wider audience for cyber bullying. There is ongoing debate and research about whether cyber bullying is just another kind of bullying, or whether we should rather think of various kinds of ‘cyber aggression’. There is also debate about whether the impact of cyber bullying is any greater than traditional bullying – but it is quite clear that both kinds can have severe negative effects on victims – and at extremes, lead to suicide. (REF:See Smith (2012) and Slonje, Smith and Frisén (2012).)

NB:With current media coverage on bullying and cyber bullying is the situation improving?

The media often portrays bullying as a problem that is on the increase. Whether this is so, was investigated by Rigby and Smith (2011) drawing upon empirical studies undertaken in a wide range of countries. The HBSC survey has provided data from equivalent samples across time, for some 27 countries; there was a slight decrease in bully and victim rates between 2005/2006 and 2009/2010.  This evidence of a decline in bullying involvement is supported by other studies – Rigby and Smith (2011) reviewed supportive findings from England (including the Tellus surveys), Wales, Finland, and Australia.

In the USA, changes in abusive behaviour involving children have been reported by Finkelhor et al. (2009), based on data from two similar national surveys conducted five years apart, in 2003 and 2008. Overall, there was a reduction in abusive behaviour experienced by children between 2003 and 2008. This included a large drop in having been physically attacked by a peer or sibling, from 21.7% to 14.8%.  The authors comment that “The decline apparent in this analysis parallel evidence from other sources, including police data, child welfare data, and the National Crime Victimization Survey, suggesting reductions in various types of childhood victimization in recent years”.

Also in the USA, Ybarra, Mitchell and Korchmaros (2011) reported data from the Growing Up with Media survey, with data from 2006, 2007, and 2008. They found that ‘most rates of youth violent experiences online were stable over the 36-month observation period’, although there was some increase in perpetration of harassment online. Changes in being a victim of bullying on the internet and via text messaging were small and not significant.

In summary, there is good evidence that, in many countries, rates of involvement in traditional bullying have shown some decline over the last 10 or 20 years.  There is much less evidence about cyber bullying involvement.  It clearly increased in the early years of this century, and proliferated into different forms; nevertheless as the proportion of students in most communities having access to mobile phones and the internet approaches saturation, the indications are that rates of cyber bullying are not rising substantially over the last few years, but neither are they declining so clearly as is the case for traditional bullying.

NB:Have you knowledge of any severe cases and consequences of bullying?

I have personally had correspondence with a number of people who have suffered from bullying. The effects of being a victim of bullying are well documented in the research literature – it can cause loss of self-esteem, depression, lack of trust in relationships, and adversely affect health and well-being, and academic achievement. Suicidal ideation is higher if bullying persists, and the worst outcome is suicide. These extreme outcomes are also well documented in the media.

NB:What is the best advice to give a child who is being bullied?

The first advice is to seek help from someone you trust – a parent, or possibly another family member; a teacher; an adult or peer counsellor if your school runs such a service; or you can use a telephone helpline, or internet resource such as cybermentors.

Second, don’t give in to being bullied. You have a right to a secure life at school, free from intimidation. Your school should have an anti-bullying policy, and they should follow it.  It is something your parents may be able to help with, if the school does not act to stop it.  If your parents can’t help, don’t give up – seek help from an anti-bullying organisation or advice line.

Third, there are practical steps you can take in the interim. Stay with friends, and be assertive but not aggressive if you encounter the bullies.

Fourth, if you are being cyber-bullied, besides seeking help, remember practical steps such as reporting abuse to the mobile phone company or internet service provider. Use your privacy settings carefully on social networking sites.

NB:Is there more likely to be long term effects on children who are bullied?

Statistically, the answer is yes – certainly for those who are bullied severely, or over some long period of time. For example, it may be more difficult for victims to trust others, later in life.  But, these outcomes are not inevitable. A lot depends on how the person copes with being a victim, and what support they get, as well as on their own temperament and personality.  Taking active steps to deal with the situation of being a victim, as suggested above, will in itself be helpful.

NB:Are parents and teachers dealing with bullied victims or bullies in the right way?

For traditional bullying in school, teachers are normally at the forefront of taking action. Teachers have much more knowledge and resources in this area than they did a generation ago, but there is still room for improvement.  Teachers and schools can use a range of methods – proactive methods to reduce the likelihood of bullying happening (such as awareness raising, social and emotional education, clear school policy); and reactive methods to deal with bullying when it occurs (such as disciplinary methods, restorative approaches, support group method). In addition many schools use some peer support schemes. See Thompson and Smith (2011) for a review of these as used in schools in England.

There is continuing debate about what is the ‘right way’, with some dispute between those who favour more punitive methods of dealing with bullying children, compared to those who advocate more counselling-based approaches. Many schools in England now use some kind of restorative approach, whereby the bullying child(ren) must acknowledge responsibility for the harm caused, but the outcome aimed for is to restore reasonable relationships rather than necessarily to punish.

So far as cyber bullying is concerned, even though it often happens outside school, much of it involves classmates, so schools have important roles here too.  But parents also need to talk with their child(ren) about use of the internet and mobile phones, and be aware of possible abuse that may be happening. This is One recent source of guidelines for cyber bullying, for schools, teachers, parents and young people.

NB:What should a school or parent watch out for in a child’s behaviour that might be a warning sign?

Changes in behaviour (if no other obvious cause) – such as mood shifts, feeling depressed, not wanting to talk about friends or school; drop in school work or achievement; unexplained physical injuries or damage to belongings; any signs of self-harm should be taken very seriously.

If you feel the need to ask Peter K Smith more questions, you can always contact him at ([email protected] ) or check his publications on the matter at his website. and Don’t forget to check our other Expert Interviews.

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