Tackling Bullying as a Cultural Movement - Colman Noctor
It is important to know that bullying is not new, it has been around since time began. However, in a contemporary world of hyper-communication, the avenues and tone of bullying behaviour is evolving. Previously we were just consumers of media, but the advent of expressive online platforms has meant that we are now evolving into producers of media. This capacity for one-to-many communication has been a game changer in how we now communicate but unfortunately it has also had a knock-on effect on how bullying occurs.
Young people are growing up in a time where their access to communication is at an unprecedented level and the amount of virtual ‘adult-free’ spaces available to young people far exceeds anything that has gone before. With the combination of a dysregulated population and an unregulated environment where the emotional aspects of communication exchanges are much more limited than traditional face to face communication, it is no wonder why this has become so problematic.
You will hear lots of people talk about the need to ‘bully-proof’ young people or teach them to be more ‘resilient’ etc, but for me this narrative can sometimes feel a bit ‘victim blaming’. It somehow suggests that the person who is being bullied is in some ways at fault? For me the intervention needs to be focused on managing the bullying behaviour as opposed to the victim and it needs to occur at a socio-cultural level. Rather than tackling bullying at an individual level, perhaps we need to create counter-cultures to our bullying problem. For me the answer lies, not in the external policies of the school’s Board of Management, but in the young people themselves. Never have we experienced more openly inclusive and diverse school cultures than those that exist in Ireland today. We are living in a time where conversations around ethnicity, gender, sexuality and difference are now commonplace in most school environments. We have been able to meaningfully adopt these changes in attitude by engaging young people in the ownership over the conversations about their own culture and by creating a popular movement of acceptance and tolerance. Perhaps a similar movement needs to be created to eradicate bullying from our culture?
In my view, effective anti-bullying cultures are achieved by allowing the young people to create and design the anti-bullying policies from the ground up, and refuse to accept bullying behaviour in their local culture. There is no shortage of advocacy in many socio-cultural issues in the mainstream media in recent years, and therefore why can we not embrace and utilise this cultural narrative to make bullying an unacceptable socio-cultural issue. In most bullying scenarios there are three players. There is a person who is bullying, the person who is being bullied, and then there is the bystander. I remain convinced that in order to address the issue of bullying we must influence the third player in the bullying dynamic, i.e. the bystander. In the spirit of the philosophy of ‘power in numbers’ we need to set a culture of non-acceptance of bullying with the majority, i.e. the bystanders. Most young people do not bully, and most do not willingly condone bullying, but the presence of negative peer pressure, a warped understanding of what it means to be cool, and a lack of understanding of the impact of their behaviours on others, can create a problematic dynamic of collusion with bullying behaviours. This can occur through active mistreatment of others and/or the exclusion of others from groups and events. We need to invest in a culture that no longer makes bullying cool. We need to engage in a new agenda that makes anti-bullying narratives something that young people want to be part of. We have seen in recent years how the young people of Ireland have spoken with their feet in changing legislation around marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights etc. Perhaps we need to develop a movement with a similar or equivalent powerful iconic symbol to create a culture that wants to eradicate bullying and exclusion.
In my work I have seen the pervasive impact that bullying can have on a young person’s life. The impact of these experiences on the victim’s self-worth, self-esteem and self-value can be catastrophic. If we are to meaningfully engage in promoting the mental wellbeing of our children, then the bullying epidemic is the most important place to start. We need to call out this behaviour for what it is, and make it unacceptable in Irish schools, sports clubs and organisations. Attending school and feeling safe is not a luxury, it is a fundamental human right. It is about time that we begin to see it as such, and start to take serious strides in tackling the bullying problem, which is to my mind the biggest contemporary challenge to the mental health of our children.
Colman Noctor is a Leinster based Child, Adolescent / Young Adult Psychoanalytical Psychotherapist. He has worked in many of the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services both in Ireland and abroad and therefore has a wealth of national and international clinical experience. Colman’s approach to therapy combines individual work and parenting sessions. He is also the best selling author of ‘Cop On’, a parenting book for the technological age.