We’re all familiar with the image of “the school bully”: a villainous character that appears in many movies and cartoons. In these media, you often see bullying portrayed as inevitable, a sort of rite of passage that students must pass through on their way to adulthood.
In today’s society, however, the idea of bullying as a rite of passage is being steadily challenged. In fact, bullying is not a harmless experience, nor one that “builds character”; research finds that being involved in bullying can have serious consequences on students’ mental health.
Unfortunately, bullying is not an uncommon experience in Canada. According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, at least 1 in 3 adolescent students say they have recently been bullied. And among adults in Canada, 38% of men and 30% of women report having been bullied while they were at school.
The issue of bullying can also target students from particular groups. For example, students who identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited, queer or questioning) experience three times as much harassment as their heterosexual peers. Gender can also play a role in types of bullying experienced: studies have shown that boys are more likely to be physically bullied, whereas girls are more likely to experience cyberbullying (i.e., bullying over the Internet).
And if bullying seems more pervasive today than ever, the connectedness of the Internet may be partially to blame. In past generations, students’ interactions with bullies would be largely confined to the schoolyard. But with students now being constantly connected, cyberbullying is become increasingly prevalent—and it’s very difficult to escape: nasty comments through the Internet can reach students at any time of the day or night.
How bullying affects students’ health and well-being
The harmful effects of bullying can be wide-ranging—on both sides. Several research institutes have reported that students who are bullied are at an increased risk for mental health problems, including depression, suicidal ideation, and long-term damage to their self-esteem.
Bullying can have an effect on academics, too. Students who experience a high level of bullying reportedly have a significantly lower academic performance than their non-bullied peers. Social isolation, anxiety, trouble sleeping, changes to eating habits, physical complaints like stomachaches and headaches, and a higher risk of illness are all linked to high rates of bullying as well.
And the risk is not confined to one side of the issue. Students who bully others are also at heightened risk for depression, as well as for future substance use, academic struggles, and violence toward others. And the greatest predictor of mental health risk appears to be for students who are involved in bullying on both sides—that is, those who have been bullied as well as bullying others.
Over the years, there have been several high-profile cases of students committing suicide after suffering bullying at the hands of their peers or through the Internet. Stories like those of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons have been tragic reminders that bullying must be taken seriously, and the memories of these young students have pushed many Canadians to think more critically about how to address the issue of bullying online and in schools.
What can schools and parents do about bullying?
The first, and most crucial, thing that both schools and parents can do? Take bullying seriously. Rather than writing bullying off as “something all kids go through” or “part of growing up,” reports of bullying need to be listened to and addressed.
If you suspect your child is being bullied, the first step is encouraging your child to talk about it. It’s important to be supportive and reassuring for this conversation—try to remain calm and emphasize that your child is not to blame for what they are experiencing.
Ultimately, if bullying is taking place at school, you will need to address it with the school administration. With the consent of your child, approach their teacher about the problem—and if the teacher doesn’t appear to be taking action, consider advancing your complaint to higher levels of the administration until you find someone who will respond.
What about parents who suspect their child might be bullying others? Again, open communication is important. Share details of what they’ve been accused of and hold them accountable for their actions, but also remain calm and be sure to listen to their side of the story.
If your child’s school has informed you that they are engaged in bullying, keep in touch with the school regarding any future incidents, and consider spending more time with your child or encouraging them to participate in more activities with positive role models. Physical activities or those that involve self-expression may also help them to channel their negative emotions in more constructive ways.
In order to have a successful anti-bullying strategy, schools should start by providing education to everyone from students to teachers, administrators, and parents on the many forms and risks of bullying.
Studies show that successful anti-bullying programs make it clear what the consequences for bullying will be, and also devote time to showing bystanders how to stand up for bullied victims, thus making bullying less socially acceptable across the school at large.
At the same time, it’s clear that focusing on punishment isn’t the ultimate answer to the problem. Rather, schools need to address the root causes behind the bullying—which begins with finding out what is pushing bullies toward that behaviour. Prevention programs that are most effective will involve teaching children about building respectful relationships and effectively resolving conflicts from a young age.
What can students do when they’re being bullied?
While prevention is always the best medicine, what can students who are actively being bullied do about their situation now?
No matter what form your bullying takes, remember: you don’t need to bear the burden alone. Talking to someone is an important first step in addressing the issue, be it a parent, teacher, principal or guidance counsellor, or the parent of a friend who you trust.
When being bullied in person, the best strategies to get through the moment are to stay calm and ignore the bullying behaviour, as best you can. (Bullies tend to thrive on negative attention, and an aggressive or emotional response can be just what they’re looking to provoke.) Consider keeping records of the bullying incidents that you experience so you can refer to them later if you have to report them.
As for bullying that occurs online: do not respond to hurtful posts, no matter how tempting. Instead, keep a record—take screenshots if you need to—and report abusive comments or fake profiles for removal. (The Government of Canada has some additional tips on what to do if you’re being cyberbullied.)
In either case, when bullying is ongoing, it is important to report the behaviour to someone you trust so that the issue can be addressed. If you are not comfortable reaching out directly, charities like Stop a Bully allow Canadian students to anonymously report bullying behaviour to their schools. There are also mental health phone lines available to you 24/7 should you urgently need to talk.
How our Stay Healthy at School program can help
StudyInsured’s Stay Healthy at School program is designed to provide 24/7 mental wellness support that students can access no matter where they are.
With the Stay Healthy at School program, students have unlimited access to:
- A 24/7 dedicated mental wellness phone line, available in 180 languages
- Online resources and articles on the health issues most affecting students
- Tips for students and their families that can help support their physical and mental wellbeing
- Help navigating the Canadian healthcare system
- Mobile applications to help students stay healthy and safe
Our Stay Healthy at School program helps students to tackle the challenges they face so that they can get back to what’s important: studying, learning, and enjoying their school experience.
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Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Canadian bullying statistics. www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca
CBC News. How bullied children face long-term hits to mental health. April 28, 2015. www.cbc.ca
CBC News. Pink shirt day can’t stop bullying without deeper discussion, says education expert. February 25, 2015. www.cbc.ca
Dryden-Edwards, Roxanne. Bullying. www.medicinenet.com
Hurley, Katie. Short-term and long-term effects of bullying. psycom.net
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. How does bullying affect health and well-being? www.nichd.nih.gov
StopBullying.gov. Effects of Bullying. www.stopbullying.gov