TORONTO – While adults have a pivotal role to play in cases of childhood bullying, expert speakers at a conference on the hot-button subject say kids and their peers are also vital in helping to put an end to the practice.
Tools and strategies to help combat bullying were the focus at the seventh annual conference hosted by PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), a national authority on research and resources for bullying prevention.
The subject has loomed large in the headlines in recent months following the suicides of Nova Scotia student Rehtaeh Parsons and B.C. teen Amanda Todd.
The death of 17-year-old Parsons in April came following months of bullying after a photo of her alleged sexual assault was circulated within her school community. The 15-year-old Todd was found dead last fall after being sexually exploited online and bullied by her peers.
Nancy Willard, director of Oregon-based Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, said a lot of bullying prevention initiatives focus on the roles of adults surrounding policymaking, education and intervention. But Willard said her primary focus has been on empowering young people to step forward when they see bullying occur.
Among the biggest factors which prevent youngsters from speaking out are: diffusion of responsibility, fear of embarrassment or retaliation and concerns peers will look down on them if they fail to subscribe to perceived peer norms.
Willard said when young people who are being bullied or harassed receive support from friends, it can help decrease feelings of depression and anxiety they may experience.
She said she’s aware it requires considerable courage for individuals to tell others to stop bullying. To that end, she recommended forming a team with similarly minded peers to reinforce the message.
“We know that the friends of someone who is being hurtful are more likely to support their hurtful friend,” she said in an interview prior to her presentation at the PREVNet conference.
“If we can change that dynamic … give them some suggestions on how to help their friends (to) stop being hurtful, and to resolve the problem; and also recognize that their reputation is also at risk,” she added.
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“If they’re perceived to be encouraging their friend who’s being hurtful, then that will damage their reputation also.”
It’s a message reinforced by Jane Tallim, co-executive director of MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based charitable organization for digital and media literacy.
“Because this sort of bullying is socially motivated, the most powerful inhibitor for this is actually clear messaging from their peers that bullying isn’t cool and that it’s unacceptable,” said Tallim, a former high school teacher and mother of three.
Willard said bystanders should aim to reduce the degree of embarrassment for the victim and demonstrate their support however possible, be it through sending an encouraging message or inviting them for a sit-down to discuss the incident.
If kids find themselves unable to help, Willard said that means the matter has become more serious and it’s time to reach out to adults — particularly in cases where an individual is really upset and there’s a risk of self-harm.
While adult intervention often helps to improve the situation, Tallim said it’s still important to foster confidence and trust in kids to come forward when bullying is taking place.
That includes having parents ensure youngsters know what to do if the situation arises — such as where and how to report the incident — and inquiring about their child’s school’s process for handling harassment.
It’s also critical to reinforce the importance of comforting the victim, Tallim noted.
“Targets of bullying often come to believe that they deserve what’s happening to them if no one shows them any support, so we really want to encourage this in our kids.”
With the increasing prevalence of cyberbullying and general concerns over kids’ online activity, Tallim also emphasized the need for parents to work with kids in developing appropriate family rules for using technology.
“The ethical skills that we want to develop in our kids in their off-line lives — which are empathy, efficacy, resilience, responsibility — these are the same skills they need to apply in their online lives as well,” she said.
“Our core values don’t rely on technology, but we really do have to help our kids understand though the unique aspects of the technology which can challenge how they behave.”
Tallim said a large part of preparing kids to be online not only includes creating family rules but also safety rules that focus on Internet etiquette, such as not posting mean things online or photos without another person’s permission.
“Those family rules should be something you do with your children, and they should also include clear explanations about why you as a parent think these rules are important.”