Image by J_O_I_D via Flickr
When I was a child I was bullied at school. Hard to believe if you know me today… but back then things were very different.
Tall, gangly and with a chronic lack of self-confidence, I guess I made an easy target. Picking on the "big meek kid" seemed to be the order of the day… and it hurt much more than just the physical pain.
The specifics of individual events elude me now, but I still remember vividly how the taunting and physical bullying made me feel: worthless, insignificant and utterly, irrevocably alone.
It didn’t help that I was getting mixed messages at home. Mum was advocating a "turn the other cheek" approach while Dad was a staunch advocate of a "give them a dose of their own medicine" solution. It left me in limbo.
In the end it turned out that Dad was right, but I was in fifth year at secondary school before I’d finally had enough, faced my demons and turned the tables on the bullies. That’s when it stopped!
Bullying in any form is abhorrent on so many levels, but at least in my day the bullying was a tangible thing. I could see the people who were taunting you: real, flesh and blood boys standing in front of me. But today there’s an altogether more sinister aspect to bullying… a new dimension to an age old menace that’s being facilitated by modern communication technology.
Cyber-bullying is on the increase, and was in the news again recently when it was implicated in the suicide of a 14-year-old Australian girl. The girl’s mother claims her daughter took her own life because of online bullying.
“We discussed [an unwanted Internet message] for about an hour and she left me fairly happy," she told Melbourne radio station 3AW. "I can guarantee you if she didn’t go on the Internet Friday night she’d be alive today.”
Of course it’s not the internet’s "fault" — the internet is just a medium like any other. It makes it easier for people to communicate and access information on all sorts of things in all sorts of different ways, and by anyone’s measure that’s an incredibly positive thing for individuals, for businesses, for the economic prosperity of the nation as a whole.
But just as with any other medium, the internet is open to abuse, and offers a convenient vehicle for the darker side of the human psyche. Bullying is no exception.
Last year a study by the Anti-Bullying Centre in Trinity College, Dublin, found that one in seven Irish secondary school students had been victims of some form of cyber bullying — with one in five girls saying they’d been targeted. The speed with which a derogatory comment or malicious slur can spread virally through a young persons online network exacerbates the problem, and the perceived anonymity of screen and keyboard can embolden the perpetrators.
But what’s a parent to do? You can’t ban the technology: mobile phones, instant messaging and social networks are the hub of the new teenage social model — so denying them will only serve to ostracise your child and make the problem worse.
We need to be aware of the problem, help our children to understand what is and isn’t acceptable in their online interactions with their peers, and encourage them to talk to us just as much about what’s bothering them on-line as what’s bothering them off-line.
While technology adds another layer to the dynamics of bullying, the underlying principles are still the same. Ultimately it boils down to confidence… or lack thereof. As parents we have to foster self-confidence and a healthy self-belief in our children from an early age, and encourage positive social interaction on all levels. If we can do that, they’ll be far less susceptible to bullying of any sort, cyber- or otherwise.