I was browsing a few children’s websites yesterday, and I was struck by the enormous risk projected on the parent pages of cyberbullying and other types of online bullying and predatorial behaviour. It reminded me of a BBC radio feature series I made many years ago about children’s perceptions of crime. I have never forgotten the children who seemed to believe that every man in the street was a murderer who they needed to run away from; the children who did not dare to play in their garden in case they were abducted; and the country children who watched programmes like Crimestoppers and believed that it was too dangerous to go outside if you lived in a city.
According to Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, around one in five children has experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime, and one in ten has experienced it two or more times in the last 30 days. Those statistics sound high, but the Center still sees more schoolyard bullying that cyberbullying.
Let’s get clear first of all, what we are talking about with cyberbullying. The website, Stop Cyberbullying defines it as “When a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones. It has to have a minor on both sides, or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor.” It ranges from online teasing to death threats, from hate emails to humiliating images – all things that can seriously disturb a young person.
Given that anti-bullying campaigns have been going on as long as I can remember and there is still so much bullying going on between children I think it is time to have a look at a different approach to the problem.
I believe that if we are really honest we can all relate to both sides of the bullying coin – the bully and the victim. All of us have gone over the edge from time to time in teasing someone, ganging up on someone or passing on information about someone that we would not like to have passed on about ourselves. We have also all experienced being the victim of someone else displaying these types of behaviour. They may not be very serious, but it is useful to recognise in ourselves the behaviour we want to change in others. If we know how to change it in ourselves it will be much easier to influence others to change it too, especially children.
Having spent 10 years interviewing children all over the world, including some very badly-behaved and almost criminal kids, I can honestly say that they are not so different from me – or you. They were always doing the best they could, under the circumstances they were in, but they often lacked full understanding of the consequences of their actions to others.
So I can look to myself to see what kind of change is needed to put an end to bullying behaviour, and it is quite simple. I see that I have been harsh or unkind when I have felt weak but couldn’t admit it so I needed to make myself feel more powerful than someone else. I have become a victim when I have felt weak and couldn’t admit it so I needed to blame someone else for it. Both situations have arisen because I felt weak and was not able to admit my weakness to myself, let alone others. I did not have enough confidence in myself to be able to relate to other people as an equal – to see them for who they are and see myself for who I am.
I once knew a 9 year old boy who was the only black child in his school. He was quite remarkable because whenever he was teased about being black, as he inevitably was, simply because he was different, he laughed and shook it off as if it was quite meaningless to him. No one could tease him with any seriousness at all because the words did not stick to him.
I have been able to laugh when someone teased or bullied me and shake them off easily when I felt confident in myself for who I am and able to accept my weaknesses as well as my strengths. You can’t be teased (and hurt) for being fat if you know and accept you are fat. It is only when you pretend to yourself and to everyone else that you are not fat that you can be hurt about it – and what a terrible lie that is.
A good dose of honesty goes a long way with kids. They have an uncanny knack of being brutally honest about what they see and will tell you what a big nose you have, or funny eyes, without any hesitation. If we could help them be as honest about themselves as they are about others, without protecting them from the truth of their weaknesses and differences (which are many), a lot of the teasing and bullying would find no victims – and eventually no bullies either.
There is no excuse for cyberbullying, or any other kind of bullying, but it is happening everywhere. I believe we would help kids to deal with all aspects of bullying if we were more honest with ourselves and could really face our own forms of bully and victim behaviour. As we change ourselves we will know exactly how to help children become genuinely resilient, confident and honest about themselves in ways that disarm others.
Sarah McCrum used to run Children’s Voices, a radio production company specialising in interviewing children. She founded the Energy Bank in London and is now working on a new project for children called Magicus.