Bullying 1: What It Is and What It Can Do

 
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By now, most of us would have heard the tragic and horrific stories of T. Nhaveen and Zulfarhan’s bullying and subsequent deaths. If you haven’t, you can catch up here – T. Nhaveen (Hyperlink): http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/06/17/nhaveen-died-from-strikes-to-the-head-say-police/ and Zulfarhan (Hyperlink): http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/06/03/navy-cadet-officer-tortured-to-death-over-laptop/. With these high-profile cases in the media and on our minds, we have the opportunity to open up dialogue and raise awareness to combat this insidious societal ill.

Unfortunately, bullying appears to be a relatively common phenomenon in Malaysian schools. In Kuala Lumpur, a study back in 2009 of seven national primary schools found that 41.2% out of 410 Standard 6 students reported having been victims of bullies before1. In 2015, the Deputy Education Minister reported that there were 3,011 recorded cases of bullying in Malaysia2. Although this may seem like a relatively small number, we need to take into consideration two things: 1) Many bullying cases may go unreported due to a number of reasons, and 2) That still leaves 3,011 individuals who have reported being bullying victims in one year.

The “What” of Bullying

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UNICEF Malaysia defines bullying as “a spectrum of aggressive and intentional behaviors that result in an intimidating imbalance of power”3. UNICEF also states that bullying is rarely an isolated incident, with many victims experiencing bullying repeatedly3 as in the case of T. Nhaveen where it was reported that he had been continuously harassed throughout his schooling period. Usually when we think about bullying, the examples that come to mind are physical: Kicking, punching, pushing, and the like. However, bullying can also be verbal, psychological (social), and with the spread of the Internet and global connectivity, bullying has now also gone online. Furthermore, bullying can occur both in and out of school, and even at work. A list of some bullying behaviours include4:

1. Physical bullying involves damaging an individual’s body or things:
a. Hitting/kicking/pinching
b. Spitting
c. Tripping/pushing
d. Taking or breaking someone’s things
e. Making mean or rude hand gestures
2. Verbal bullying includes saying or writing mean, hurtful, and/or inappropriate things:
a. Teasing
b. Name-calling, labelling, or teasing
c. Inappropriate sexual comments
d. Taunting
e. Threatening to cause harm
3. Social (psychological) bullying, also known as relational bullying, involves damaging reputation and/or relationships
a. Leaving someone out on purpose (Exclusion)
b. Telling other children not to be friends with someone
c. Spreading rumors about someone
d. Embarrassing someone in public
4. Cyber-bullying may involve any of the verbal or social bullying behaviours listed above and may include actions such as, but not limited to3:
a. Sending threatening and/or inappropriate emails or messages
b. Taking pictures or videos without consent and uploading them online

The “Why” of Bullying

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As we can see, bullying can take many forms. An excellent question that we would do well to examine is “Why do bullies bully?” A well-known phenomenon drawn from social identity theory in Psychology is known as the in-group out-group bias. An “in-group” is a group you are part of (genetically, culturally, or ideologically) and that you may psychologically identify with, while an “out-group” is a group you aren’t part of and these distinctions can be highly arbitrary e.g. Football fans5, 6. Research has also found that we tend to like and identify with people who are in our in-group and dislike and put down those who are not (the out-group)6. In terms of bullying, a study that examining attitudes towards bullying found that if an individual conformed to the standards and norms of the group, they were accepted7. In contrast, this study found that bullying was considered more acceptable towards a member of the out-group7.
One of the most well-known experiments that highlighting this phenomenon was done back in 1968 in the classroom of Jane Elliot, a primary school teacher. To illustrate the dangers of prejudice and discrimination, she ran a social experiment by dividing the class into groups based on their eye colour i.e. brown versus blue-eyed children. Then, she told the class that blue-eyed children were better than the brown-eyed children, gave them better privileges, and also treated them better. The next week, she turned the situation around by making the brown-eyed children the “superior” ones and the blue-eyed children the “inferior” ones. Results of the exercise were astonishing. Within a short time, the “superior” children were ridiculing their “inferior” classmates, calling them “stupid”, and avoiding them in the playground during recess. Even more astonishing was the fact that these “inferior” children’s academic performance suffered, even on tasks that were simple before6.

As illustrated so painfully in the example above, bullying can have far-reaching consequences on its victims. While physical scars may fade, the emotional scars may impact its victims for a lifetime, and even for others who are witnesses to the bullying8. Research has found that such children may live out their school lives feeling lonely, rejected, and terrified without any hope that things may change8. On the side of the bullies, risk factors for bullying behaviour include poor academic grades, absenteeism, truancy, and other sociocultural factors such as violence at home, excessive risk-taking behaviour, weak social ties, anti-social peers, poor parent-child relationships, lack of empathy, difficulty following rules, and substance abuse8, 9. As mentioned above, even witnesses may suffer effects such as feeling helpless to stop the bullying, feeling guilty, and fear that they might be next9.
“But why don’t kids ask for help?” Statistics show that an adult was notified only 40% of the time in bullying incidents among children10. Among the reasons that may silence bullying victims10:

1. Bullying can make the person feel helpless. They may fear being seen as weak or a tell-tale and may want to handle it themselves to feel in control.
2. The victim may be afraid of more consequences from the bully.
3. The victim may feel humiliated and may not want others to know about this.
4. The victim may feel isolated and that nobody can help them.

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In conclusion, bullying can take on a variety of forms, and can be as obvious as punching or as subtle as social exclusion. Regardless, its effects on its victims are well-documented in countries worldwide. Thus, we, as individuals and as a society, need to take action to stand against this social ill and extend healing and grace, not just for victims but for the bullies themselves. While bullies may have committed injury and hurt, the answer is not to villainize them but to help them too. In the next article, I will explore ways that we can help both the victims of bullying, and their aggressors.

References
1 http://www.mjpsychiatry.org/index.php/mjp/article/viewFile/49/48
2 http://www.thesundaily.my/node/366063
3 https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/campaigns_teachrespect-bullying.html
4 https://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/index.html
5 http://factmyth.com/ingroups-and-outgroups-explained/
6 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201012/in-groups-out-groups-and-the-psychology-crowds
7 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1348/026151004772901096/abstract
8 https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/reallives_6945.html
9 https://nobullying.com/bullying-in-malaysia/
10 https://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/warning-signs/index.html#bullied

 
CSRJeremy