COCHRANE – COVID-19 had transformed our day-to-day lives, and like many parts of our reality, this has affected how students experience bullying.
RancheView School teacher Bill Belsey said that COVID-19 has affected many aspects of our daily lives, but it has not changed the complexity of human relationships – including bullying.
“Not all meanness and cruelty is bullying," he said. "Bullying refers to repeated psychological, social and physical aggression done by those who are more physically or socially powerful. Addressing the role of power is critical to combating bullying.
“Different strategies are needed to curb other types of meanness and cruelty, but it’s also important not to overreact. Some forms of teasing, pranking and drama are perfectly healthy, even if they look troublesome from the outside.”
The biggest transformation created by COVID-19 has been the amount of time students spend online while engaging with remote learning. He said this, in turn, means the potential for cyberbullying has also increased.
“The issue of bullying in Rocky View schools is the same as you might find in any school division anywhere – it exists,” Belsey said.
Belsey created the website cyberbullying.ca to share information on the issues of cyberbullying.
He cautioned that cyberbullying can at times be an “unnecessary distraction,” because students report in-person bullying is more common and has a greater negative impact. He added cyberbullying is unique because it is especially notable to adults and is easier to trace.
Most bullying, however, remains relatively invisible.
“Bullying can take many forms; it can be physical, verbal, psychological or emotional,” he said. “The term 'cyberbullying' that I coined over two decades ago, refers to online bullying. Cyberbullying itself can manifest itself through all of the myriad ways we use to communicate digitally today.”
What is important to keep in mind is that bullies often act out because of difficulties they face at home or in school, he said, and need just much help as those they target.
“Bullies are often victims in other parts of their lives who are lashing out,” Belsey said, explaining bullying is primarily about power and control and is at its heart a relationship issue.
Belsey noted bullying is a learned behaviour, and students can learn to bully from their peers or adults.
“Young people may see bullying behaviours being modelled by others around them. Kids remember some of what adults say, they are much more likely to adopt behaviour they see adults model,” Belsey said.
He added a Dutch study found bullies are often driven by the need to attain status and gain the affection of their peers. This becomes an issue when they use dominance to attain these ends.
“It's never too early for bullying to occur. As soon as children are able to interact socially, many become entrenched in patterns of victimization, or bullying," Belsey said. "Victims are more likely to be those who were aggressive in infancy, subjected to harsh parenting styles, or from low-income homes. As children age, those who experienced bullying in their formative years are more likely to continue to be the victim, raising levels of depression, low self-esteem, social withdrawal, suicidal intention, and loneliness.
"Distinctions between bullies and victims become apparent as early as preschool, with aggressive children having a harder time building relationships with peers. These early problems could have long-term ramifications, so it's important to tackle them early on.”
The key to helping solve bullying problems is to create long-term solutions that transform a cultural ecosystem.
“When a child has been hurt, people want someone, or something, to blame, but rushing to prosecute purported bullies only undermines society’s ability to curb bullying,” Belsey said. “Rather than looking for people to blame, it’s important to look for root causes such as mental health issues, struggles to fit in, parental pressure and a culture of intolerance and work to address those. The blame game does little to stop the cycle of violence.”
To date most anti-bullying assemblies have proven ineffective because while the messages are well-meaning most teens do not recognize most of the meanness and cruelty they experience as bullying. They instead see it as teasing, drama or pranking.
When students recognize serious encounters as bullying it can be a difficult experience to unpack because they lack the educational, social and structural infrastructure to make a difference, Belsey said. He added adults often face a similar challenge when a student confides in them that they have been bullied.
Long-term solutions to help students with bullying involves developing strong social and problem-solving skills. Belsey added, students who lack social problem-solving skills are often at higher risk of being bullies, victims or both.
Successful anti-bullying strategies should focus on more than just punishment, he said, and begin targeting risk factors and environments that lead to bullying in the first place both at home and in school.
“There are effective programs for addressing the underlying issues – they require social-emotional learning and empathy development. Yet, putting these in place requires serious commitment in terms of money, time and community involvement,” Belsey said. “Far better results have been seen with programs that focus on teaching kids mediation, building social skills, and helping students learn to solve problems.
"While students may learn positive behaviours at school, negative behaviours may be reinforced at home, making it hard to facilitate any real change in students. The real problem may be that it simply isn't possible to get everyone to like each other all the time, or even to treat each other with respect; a human problem that isn't going to go away anytime soon.”
If there is a concern a student may be bullied there are symptoms to look for.
These include: a sudden decreased interest in school, loss of interest in favourite school activities, a sudden decrease in the quality of school work, not wanting to ride the school bus, becoming unhappy, preoccupied or tense on Sundays, suddenly preferring the company of adults, frequent illnesses, sleep issues, coming home with unexplained scratches, bruises or torn clothing, avoiding certain areas of the school or neighbourhood, suddenly becoming moody irritable or angry or begins bullying others, seeking our the wrong friends in the wrong places, talking about being sad, anxious or depressed or having panic attacks.
“Students who are loners, or who are antisocial, are more frequently bullied at school. Researchers believe this is a way to help control renegades, establish social order, and to keep a group's members under control,” Belsey said. “This information can help prevent victimization in the classroom. Creating classroom environments that are egalitarian and encouraging more introverted students to speak up and assert themselves will help to address bullying.”
If a parent suspects their child may be a bully symptoms include: abuses towards family or neighbourhood pets, tormenting children, lacking compassion or empathy towards others, gets enjoyment when someone gets injured, is a bully at home, is manipulative with adults, is aggressive towards others, lacks social skills, little concern for others’ feelings, does not recognize the impact of their behaviour on others, possesses unexplained objects and/or extra money, secretive and the student may follow model if parents using power and aggression with each other.
To help turn the situation around Belsey recommended parents talk with students, teachers or administrators.
“Take the problem seriously. Children and youth who bully others often get into serious trouble in later life and may receive criminal convictions. They may have continuing trouble in their relationships with others," Belsey said. “Make it clear to the child that you will not tolerate this kind of behaviour, and discuss with the child the negative impact bullying has on the victims.”