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Research sheds new light on bullying

Repeated, targeted, with menace

Expert sheds new light on bullying and how it should be tackled

Neill O’Neill

DR PETER Gill has spent over 30 years studying bullying and adolescent violence. A professor of education, he was recently part of a research team that studied bullying in Sweden. The four-year study was carried out on behalf of the Swedish Government. Although Sweden has the lowest levels of bullying in the world, the Swedish Government feels that any bullying at all is too much in its society.
From his home on Clare Island, Dr Gill spoke to The Mayo News last week about the findings of his group’s research, which were first published last year and have recently been translated into English for the first time.
“For some bullies their actions show intelligence, creativity and fun, and they all get a kick out of it and want kudos for their actions, which they consider smart but everyone else considers evil,” Dr Gill explains.
“This further emphasises the finding that bullies don’t bully alone and that bullying rewards bullies. There is an intelligence involved in finding new ways, and more subtle ways, to bully.”
The Mayo News recently reported on a serious case of bullying in Westport, in which a 14-year-old boy was being subjected to a terrifying mobile-phone bullying campaign. For over eight months, inflammatory and indecent text messages were being sent in Harry Langan’s name from a phone he did not own. The hate campaign has taken a serious toll on Harry, and on his parents, Gemma and Brian.
Commenting on the case,  Dr Gill said: “The anonymous bullying that is going on against the family in Westport is considered brilliant by the bullies, that’s why they persist. In a room somewhere, there are people sitting around getting a laugh out of sending these texts, and that is the evil of the situation. Bullying is a collective act.
“Among the questions being asked are why can’t bullying be considered a criminal act? In the recent case highlighted in The Mayo News, where people are pretending to be another young man and utterly destroying his reputation by sending text messages around about him, why can’t this be treated under libel laws, even assault laws?
“The key definition of bullying is that is has to be repeated, targeted and with menace. There is always an accumulation of action.”

Schools must act

“Schools must be honest about this whole thing. They must be willing to admit, ‘we missed that kid, we solved it now and we – the entire system – are sorry. The all-too-common institutionalised reaction is ‘We’ve done all we can about bullying’ … but that is not true … it should stop if you’ve done everything you can.
“In studies, schools that involve students in the running of things in the school were the ones that had the lowest levels of bullying. One of the surest signs of bullying is where the headmaster says there is no bullying.
“Bullying is evolving, but it is still fundamentally bullying. For example, ‘Ijime’ is a Japanese form of bullying that is so subtle that the teacher or parent doesn’t see it. The bully kid can be helpful to the victim in class or on the street – the teachers or adults see this – but the victim knows that this kindness comes with a sting in the tail.
“Suicidal ideation is common amongst persistently bullied children. The CIA and the FBI have put massive resources in the States into researching all cases of school shootings, and then they profiled the shooters. The conclusion of the greatest profilers in the world is that there is no profile for a school shooter. The diversity is so wide and the only consistent factor for school shooters is that 75 per cent of them were bullied. There is a persistence to their hurt.
“Teasing is obviously part of bullying – but teasing doesn’t lead to a school shooter, whereas persistent bullying can. There is a big difference between the two.”

Mediation not the answer

“Most schools organise themselves to reduce teasing and bullying but there are things you shouldn’t do. This [conclusion] is unique to our research and it is causing havoc in Sweden and across Scandinavia, because we have said that you shouldn’t mediate in bullying cases. In our research, where schools have mediated, bullying has increased after they sat down with the bully and the victim and did the ‘let’s all be friends’ routine. Research clearly shows that this leads to more bullying.
“It seems like the logical thing to do, but tragically, it is not. We investigated eight anti-bullying progammes in use in Sweden  and some of them were leading to increased instances of bullying.
“Another thing you should not do is general assemblies on bullying, because the bullies just go in there and laugh to themselves … They stand there listening to the headmaster going on and they are getting more gratification out of it. A victim of bullying should not know that anything is being done for them.”
Dr Gill believes that bullies’ parents must also be handled in a certain way, as “the tendency is to reject claims and say; ‘my child doesn’t bully’.” Rather than asking parents to be vigilant about possible bullying, Dr Gill says that parents need to be told where bullying has been identified.

Anti-bullying teams
“The most significant factor in prevention in Scandinavia is what we call anti-bullying teams, who have a full mandate to intervene in cases of bullying,” Dr Gill said. “There are also advocates for the system where parents must accept that their child may be wrongly accused of bullying during the course of an investigation, in order to achieve the greater good and eradicate bullying, and for the better good of the victim.
“On average, there is more than one bully and the anti-bullying team singles them out. You can look at the deeper issues like why they are bullying. There are different interventions for girls and boys. Both are victims and perpetrators of bullying, but where discipline rules work for boys, they don’t for girls, because girls develop more subtle ways of bullying. You can have a situation of physical versus social bullying, like public humiliation, exclusion from a group and name calling.
“You need trained people in schools and in society to identify bullying, to distinguish play bullying from other bullying, because something can be said with a smile but still be deeply hurtful. That is no less an act of bullying, and it requires expertise to handle this.
“Teachers, parents or community and advice groups may have the best intentions in the world in their approach to dealing with bullying, but research is showing that they may be doing the very wrong thing in their actions and approach on the matter. Even buddy groups have been shown to increase bullying, and provide an environment where bullying can flourish. Not only do such initiatives not work, they can be counter-productive.
“There may be a need for kids to see who is the fastest and so on, but there is no need for kids to bully each other. That is what dogs do, it is what hens do, children do not need to do it. Teasing goes on all the time, when it becomes a pattern it becomes something morbidly different – bullying.”

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