Youth and adolescent bullying makes headlines frequently. Newspapers often lend detailed accounts of severe cases of suicide and grave injuries which resulted from physical aggression, verbal abuse and more recently, online bullying. Childhood and adolescent bullying is a traumatizing situation that affects the way a person reacts to the world around them and even damages the dynamics of their most intimate relationships. What is often shoved under the rug are the personal stories, the scars left behind years after the incident occurs and the fact that bullying permeates the very fabric of many people’s everyday lives.
According to Kelly Dean Schwartz, associate professor in the School of Applied Child Psychology at the University of Calgary, determining the prevalence of bullying is a complicated question.
“It is likely that the reports are somewhere between 40 per cent to 70 per cent of children and youth have experienced at least one incident of bullying,” he says. Experience can be as the victim, the person bullying or the bystander.
“The number of those reporting being victims of bullying is likely more in the range of one quarter to one third of children and youth,” Schwartz says.
He is also hopeful that more awareness over the past decade has led to more prevention.
“Given that there have been anti-bullying programs active in many countries for the past 10–15 years, it is likely that this number is also decreasing,” Schwarts predicts.
A person is being bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more aggressor. In order for harassment or aggression to be considered bullying, there must be a power differential between those who bully and those who are victimized, repeated harm over time and an intention to harm.
Traditional bullying includes physical, verbal and social abuse.
“Males have traditionally been implicated in more physical forms of bullying, while females traditionally, because of socialization that encourages intimacy and the importance of social relations, engage more in the verbal and social bullying,” says Schwartz.
Male bullying tends to fit the more classic form of bullying: shoving a weaker peer into lockers, knocking books out of someone’s hands as well as overt psychological harassment such as name-calling and exclusion.
Studies show that girls as young as four begin to practice a more covert type of bullying, labeled relational aggression.
“These generalities, however, have been challenged by the advent of cyberbullying,” says Schwartz. Cyberbullying is defined as an intentional abuse carried out by a group or individual using electronic forms of contact.
Many social networking sites have options to communicate anonymously, and often fake proﬁles are created on sites which don’t have an option to remain anonymous. This anonymity removes accountability from the equation. Similar to how victims of traditional bullying are more likely to be perpetrators of bullying, the nature of technology makes it extremely easy for victims of cyberbullying to target others using the same technology.
“The differences between males and females in their experience of cyberbullying is equally confusing, as some reports indicated that females are more likely to both victimize and be the victims of cyberbullying than are males,” says Schwartz. Schwartz suggests that this may be because females find the anonymity of bullying others via technology more rewarding than the face-to-face bullying employed more by boys.
“Several high profile cases likely skew the perception that females are more likely to be victims of cyberbullying, but the trend is that females use social media and technology more to navigate their social worlds, and thus they may be more likely to experience cyberbullying as either a perpetrator, victim or certainly a bystander,” says Schwartz.
Despite the notion that most women are victims, men have also been targeted via social media.
Riley Matthews* is a grade 12 student at Foothills Composite High in Okotoks, Alberta. He doesn’t have a Facebook account. In the ninth grade, a fellow student created a Facebook account under Matthews’s name, mocking him and adding other students.
“He was a really smart kid, but it’s like he had no conscience. He was manipulative, almost psychotic — we were never even acquaintances, I don’t know why he did it,”
Matthews says of the boy who harassed him. Matthews went to the principal and his parents and got the account taken down within a week.
“I felt really vulnerable, incapacitated and exposed. I was totally unaware of the account until a friend mentioned it. Even some of my friends thought that the
account had been created by me. He [the creator] didn’t have a spine, it was like he couldn’t bully me any other way. I think people bully online because they feel more powerful. If they bullied in the ﬂesh it wouldn’t work.” Matthews dealt with his cyber bully quickly and school authorities and family were very supportive.
Most people who are victims of bullying, however, do not recover so quickly.
“The most troubling aspect of any discussion regarding traditional bullying or cyberbullying is the effects of such experiences on child and adolescent development,” says Schwartz. Bullying impacts the physical, emotional and social health of children involved. Victims of bullying more often report sleep disturbances, involuntary bedwetting, abdominal pain, headaches and more feelings of sadness than children who are not bullied.
“Bullies, their victims and those who are both bullies and victims have significantly increased risk for depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Some studies show that children bullied repeatedly through middle adolescence had lower self-esteem and more depressive symptoms as adults,” says Schwartz.
Victims of bullying are more likely to feel socially rejected or isolated and to experience greater social marginalization and lower social status.
“Left without intervention or support, children and youth can experience significant long-term consequences that impact healthy development,” he says.
“I do have depression,” she says. Louise Fournier is a bright 17-year-old girl whose has a passion for writing and displays a quiet and kind demeanour.
“I was bullied as a child for most of elementary school and the beginning of junior high. The bullying tended to be verbal and emotional, sometimes in regards to my personality. In Grade 7 the bullying became a nine or a 10 [in severity],” she says.
It has taken her five years from the incident in junior high for her to begin to come to terms with the toll bullying has taken on her self-esteem.
“[In junior high] I was really good friends with this other girl. She told me all of her worries and then made me promise not to tell anyone else, so I promised. I was super worried about her so I started eating less. I also started having trouble sleeping because I was so concerned about her. Eventually the stress, lack of sleep and lack of food wore down on me. After a bit she began spreading rumours about me and making comments around our friends. I continued to not eat or sleep well and also started having suicidal thoughts and attempted once,” she says. What Fournier experienced may not have left black eyes or cut lips, but the lasting psychological distress puts her friend into the bully category.
“I have been working with a counsellor to build my confidence and to work on liking myself,” she says.
Fournier also highlights a very real and often overlooked aspect of bullying unique to girls: the “frenemy.”
“A couple of them [my good friends] told me that they didn’t like how I kept acting, and they told me that I was making them feel guilty for things they hadn’t done but it got to the point that I got really depressed and ended up cutting myself once so I have the memories of that stuck in my mind. I just also don’t often feel like my opinion is respected by them,” she says. Fournier has been the victim of social isolation, gossip, manipulation and other forms of relational aggression.
Jordan Payne is a performance arts student at the University of Lethbridge.
“Of course I’ve been targeted! I’m a walking target. I’m overweight and gay. Man, bullies eat that stuff for breakfast!” In high school, his previous experience with being bullied made it more difficult for him to accept his sexuality.
“I was bullied as a child, due to being overweight. It was all mental and then one day it turned physical. It turned into kicking a lot. When I was struggling with my sexuality and coming out I was so afraid that I was going to be bullied I turned to excessive drug and alcohol abuse, and started smoking,” he says.
He has since found his niche in performing, but in the cutthroat industry of theatre, psychological harassment is quite common.
“I’ll always remember when I got the lead of a main stage show in my ﬁrst year. So many rumours about people wanting my role trying to hunt me down and hurt me. All kind of crazy things.”
Payne has been able to stay positive throughout his experience, and hopes to avoid further aggressive behaviour in the future.
Austin Frank is an impressive hockey player and a business student. “I was bullied off and on up until about Grade 7 or 8. The vast majority of the bullying was mental. Name calling, teasing and general stuff along those lines. On a scale of one to 10 I would only say that it would be about a four or a five simply because of all the horrible things that you see being done today. At the time however, it felt like a 10, but I think that it is normal for it to feel that way for anyone who is being bullied. It is without a doubt the worst feeling in the world to be bullied, whether it’s severe or not and you always feel like the entire world is against you when it happens,” he says.
As a response to the bullying, Frank admits to having bullied others numerous times.
“At the time it seemed that it was the only way that I could overcome what I was feeling. In a way it made you feel better that someone was feeling as bad as you are. I would even admit that the bullying that I did is what made me understand the process better and overcome it,” he relates.
“I was bullied until Grade 10. I can’t talk about it without crying. I’m so sorry,” says Asiago. Asiago is strong in her convictions and fiercely independent.
“It started in Grade 1. It was always the same, for 10 years. Almost everybody did it, no matter what grade they were in. It made me cry. I didn’t want to go to school, but I never really had the choice not to,” she says.
“My mother wasn’t there to look after me, and I wet the bed badly. I only had one set of clothes, so at a young age I went to school smelling like pee, because I wasn’t old enough to take care of myself. People wouldn’t sit by me on the bus. It was to the point where when we played basketball, even into high school, they’d let the ball bounce after I’d touched it to ‘kill the fleas’ before they kept playing,” she recounts.
“I developed hepatitis in grade 7. I lost three months of school but they kept at it when I got back. I always stuck up for everyone else, but I never told anybody like a teacher or my parents.”
In Grade 10 she was electrocuted while walking home from school by the same bullies and had to spend three months away from school to recover.
“When I came back, everyone wanted to be my friend, they all thought I was dead and felt bad for bullying me. It all stopped that day, when the most popular boy in school became my boyfriend and held my hand in the hallway. One day, I’m sitting in industrial home arts class, and the power goes out. One kid says ‘Just plug it into Jen!’ and when we all laughed together I knew that things had changed.”
Asiago managed to develop several meaningful friendships with her former bullies, and one woman even stated, years later, that they admired her for always coming to school, day after day, despite the ruthless bullying.
Despite her rebound in Grade 10, the taunting that Asiago put up with for years damaged her self-esteem and confidence and has influenced her relationships with other people. “I lived with a man who beat the shit out of me for 10 years — I was more susceptible to that.”
Her experiences have left permanent scars that have made her more emotionally vulnerable as an adult.
“But one day, someone says or does something to you and you’re right back on the bus in Grade 1, smelling like piss. I think about it every day still and it hurts. It never goes away, never, but it makes you stronger.”
After many years of struggling, she has learned to come to terms with her pain and suffering.
“All these things in my life have happened for a reason. I’m not afraid anymore. I have a better tendency to stand up for myself now. I’m not afraid of being beaten.”
Bullying doesn’t stop when you graduate high school, it simply takes on different forms. Experiences with bullying don’t just erase themselves when you walk out of your high school gymnasium for the last time, either. Peer victimization is more common than is often assumed and may lead to developing a more vulnerable personality style in adulthood. Therefore, it may be extremely difficult for those previously victimized to adjust to the fast-paced university world. New roommates, new classmates, and especially the threat of orientation week may seem extremely daunting to someone whose self-esteem has been harmed by bullies. While post-secondary offers a chance to start over, it may be difficult for those harbouring a past tainted by bullying.