Dubai: Whether it happens in school or on social networking websites, child bullying should never be ignored and must be tackled by parents, teachers and the community as a whole, experts said, reacting to a new study released in the United Kingdom.
The findings of the study suggest that those who are bullied by their peers in childhood are around five times more likely to experience anxiety and are nearly twice more likely to report more depression and self-harm at the age of 18 than children who are maltreated by adults.
The report was published in The Lancet Psychiatry and is based on the ‘Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children’ (ALSPAC) in Britain and the ‘Great Smoky Mountain Studies’ (GSMS) in the United States.
Researchers used data gathered from a survey of parents of 4,026 children from ALSPAC as well as a further 1,420 children from GSMS.
Giving their thoughts on the study, experts in the UAE have warned about the serious long-term effects of childhood bullying and called for more measures to tackle it at the first instance.
Dr Valeria Risoli, a clinical psychologist at Dubai Physiotherapy and Family Medicine Clinic, said bullying is not always very visible and there isn’t always enough evidence to prove it’s happening, but she believes that certain symptoms can help parents identify if their child is being bullied.
She defines bullying as “any form of verbal, physical, written, or electronic expressed act aimed at causing physical, psychological or emotional hurt to the victim”. It can take any form, she says, but the negative long-term effects on mental health can be very severe if not managed early.
Any drastic change in child behaviour needs attention.
“School is the place where bullying is more frequent and can be an unbearable place for victims who sometimes reach the point of depression. Many children refuse to go to school because of the way they are treated by peers. Their academic performance can also drastically drop,” Dr Risoli said. “Depression and anxiety are often observed in kids who are bullied. They feel constantly sad and hopeless and this can also affect their appetite and sleeping patterns, causing physical imbalances and conditions.”
Regardless of the reasons for the bullying (usually over an individual’s physical appearance or manner of acting or talking, or just for being somehow different), she said children who are bullied inevitably start questioning and disliking themselves, have low self-esteem and develop violent patterns.
Dr Risoli agreed that child bullying can sometimes be worse than adult maltreatment because children can adapt, accept and justify their parents’ bad behaviour, but with peers they feel rejected by the group they want to be part of which, in turn, frustrates and disappoints them and causes emotional damage.
Elena-Maria Andrioti, a counsellor at the Carbone Clinic of Dubai, said that in both cases the consequences are detrimental to a child’s life and can lead to mental difficulties as the child grows up, even acting as a suicide trigger in worst-case scenarios.
The effects of bullying, Andrioti said, can linger long after the bullying has stopped, especially if these individuals don’t seek help from specialists. In a study she conducted last year involving a small number of schools, she found that children as young as six to eight experience verbal bullying in school.
“Bullying is more prevalent among older children ranging from 12 to 15 years old. The forms of bullying that were the most common were cyber bullying, followed by verbal and emotional bullying [calling names, purposely excluding children from activities, etc]. My findings also indicated that students were much more affected by cyber bullying as it is a form of bullying that follows the children 24/7 given that they have access to these social networking websites everywhere, thus making the home a place as vulnerable as the school.”
With a zero-tolerance policy to bullying launched by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), Dr Risoli and Andrioti still believe it’s not enough to prevent bullying in schools in the UAE.
Need for intervention strategies
“Victims of bullying sometimes choose not to say anything about it because they think it may worsen their situation and this is why parents need to be very attentive and observe their children’s behaviour. They need to intervene immediately and communicate with their child, immediately inform the school and seek a clinical psychologist if they don’t feel better,” said Dr Risoli.
She also said teachers should play a role and invite the victims to talk and seek help.
“Preventive campaigns and education programmes at school and at home are essential to reduce the rate of bullying. Some bullies are not completely aware of the consequences of their actions on other people’s lives. In my opinion, parents have a fundamental role in educating and disciplining children about bullying,” said Dr Risoli, who also emphasised the importance of seeking help for those who are bullies.
She said a strict approach is necessary from all concerned at school. “I believe that only a zero-tolerance approach, when it is respected and strictly followed, can bring positive results. Schools professionals needs to be strict and prioritise their student’s well-being over the school’s reputation. Indeed I firmly believe that a school would be more respected and well known if bullying would be eradicated completely.”
Dr Risoli added that anti-bullying programmes should offer direct help to the victim of bullying.
Gulf News spoke to two schools in Dubai about the measures they take to prevent bullying and both said they follow a zero-tolerance policy.
The Indian High School confirmed that their students are made aware of different forms of bullying and told to immediately report incidents where they experience or notice anything that fits the description of bullying.
“Staff members share a collegiate responsibility to prevent any form of bullying among students. Student talks are also organised by our Counselling Department to make the students aware of the issue and to speak up and seek help in case he or she is being bullied. Regular student-teacher interaction in class is also used to reinforce these points. Students are made to feel comfortable and encouraged to open up and share their experiences in case such a situation arises,” the school said in a statement.
The school said a warning would be issued to the offender, parents of the students involved are notified and then the bully is monitored by staff. “A counselling session would then be organised for the bullied student.”
Uptown School said the institution follows the approach of “educating the students on what bullying really is, how to develop strategies to cope, and what actions they can take to avoid or to remedy such situations if they arise”.
“Our teachers and school counsellors undertake a programme that increases awareness and emphasises the importance of tolerance and understanding as well as respect for the rights and needs of others,” the school said in a statement.
The school also said that though instances of bullying are relatively rare, “there has to be consequences. This can take many forms depending on the severity. Certainly, counselling, reflection, recovery of values and apologies are part of the process. Involvement and understanding by parents is also vital so that the messages received are consistent and provide a 360-degree approach and coverage.”
However, Andrioti pointed out that “as much as the schools try to avoid such issues by implementing measures, we cannot control what happens when children ride the school bus, engage in activities during recess or even children’s use of smartphones and social networking websites.”
She called for anti-bullying campaigns across the community as well. “School counsellors, psychologists and specialists in the field should work with teachers to create these activities and to raise awareness in schools.”