Managing Bullying and Cyberbullying

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at my hospital’s annual Child Psychiatry Education Day. My topic was Social Media and Your Child’s Mental Health. I was surprised at the number of questions there were. Apart from the public questions, many people came up after the talk to speak with me privately.

Among this group of people, the most common problem was cyberbullying. Bullying includes all actions and statements used to hurt another person or persons. Bullying can also be more social when small or large groups of people collude to pick on someone else.Whenever an online tool is used to hurt or tease another person, this is cyberbullying. It is often worse than bullying by other means since the echo chamber that can result on social media can intensify the hurt that is caused. It also allows others to participate, sometimes anonymously, if their identities are concealed by false names or obscuring titles or handles. Finally, it can be impossible to get a break from cyberbullying since it can continue at any time or in any place.

Both being bullied and being a bully have serious impacts on mental health. Those who are bullied often suffer from depression and anxiety, even Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, as one might expect. Being bullied can affect self-esteem. Frustrated, victims of bullying may lash out and become aggressive themselves.

Bullying behavior can be a sign that greater problems of aggression are developing. These are individuals who can move on to greater antisocial behavior. Those who persecute others may have deeper relationship problems, as well as serious problems with aggression.

For those seeking a resource for youth who are bullied, Rachelle Cassada Lohmann has written The Bullying Workbook for Teens with Julia V. Taylor. This is a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy based book that helps teens deal with bullying and its impact. She is also a blogger for Psychology Today.

There are other things that can be done to address bullying. When I was speaking with audience members after my talk, I was struck by people’s reluctance to report bullying and cyberbullying. “Traditional” bullying can be more difficult to prove, even when “everyone” knows it’s happening. Cyberbullying, on the other hand, can easily be proven with a screen shot. I urge everyone to take screenshots and report online bullying to the website where it is happening.

As adults, we know that youth may come to us when they are afraid or distressed by bullying, and then later change their mind about reporting. I suggest that, when a teen is with you worried about bullying, get them to send you the screen shot. Then follow up with them to ensure that they have reported the problem, both to school authorities and their parents, or even the police when necessary. Bullying and cyberbullying may be illegal, or may lead to more serious aggression against a young person and both school authorities and the police need to be involved. The RCMP has resources for those uncertain about the legal aspects of bullying. Schools and school boards around the world have standard policies regarding bullying. This is the website for the resources and policies regarding bullying at the largest school board in my region.

All the websites I’ve outlined can help you to find the guidelines and resources you will need in specific circumstances. I have focused on bullying and cyberbullying in youth, but we know that these behaviours can occur at any age. Those of us on social media have witnessed bullying. If you’ve ever been trolled on Twitter, even by only one especially vile person, you know it’s unsettling and distressing.

The one thing we can all do to stop this is to ensure that anyone being bullied is not isolated. Support those being bullied, even if you disagree with their opinion. We are better than our opinions.

This is a poem that I find helps at those times when the world is too critical:

“REMEMBER THE LOTUS FLOWER

Great people will always be mocked by those
Who feel smaller than them.
A lion does not flinch at laughter coming from a hyena.
A gorilla does not budge from a banana thrown at it by a monkey.
A nightingale does not stop singing its beautiful song
At the intrusion of an annoying woodpecker.
Whenever you should doubt your self-worth, remember the lotus flower.
Even though it plunges to life from beneath the mud,
It does not allow the dirt that surrounds it
To affect its growth or beauty.
Be that lotus flower always.
Do not allow any negativity or ugliness
In your surroundings,
Destroy your confidence,
Affect your growth,
Or make you question your self-worth.
It is very normal for one ugly weed
To not want to stand alone.
Remember this always.
If you were ugly,
Or just as small as they feel they are,
Then they would not feel so bitter and envious
Each and every time they are forced
To glance up at magnificently
Divine YOU.

REMEMBER THE LOTUS FLOWER by Suzy Kassem

Where are the Bullies?

Late last week, Dr. Debra Peplar and Penny Milton released their report, prepared for the Nova Scotia government, reviewing the school supports for Rehtaeh Parsons, the high school student who took her own life after being bullied at school and harassed online, possibly in the wake of having been sexually assaulted as well. Reading through the thirteen recommendations of the report, I thought not about Rehtaeh but about the peers who bullied her.

As a psychiatrist who treats only adolescents, I see many young people who have been bullied either at school or in their neighbourhoods, or online. It is so common that most of the youth who are seen in our Youth Outpatient Psychiatry Program at The Royal have been bullied. What is not common is to treat someone who is a bully. Not one of the youth I have seen, at least as far back as I can remember, has ever asked for help because he or she is a bully. I have become so struck by this that I am now asking youth if they have ever bullied someone. One might well ask why I never asked this question previously but I have always just assumed that the youth or their parents would mention this.

I always ask about a history of aggression or difficulty with the law and usually get forthright answers and, in retrospect, perhaps it is in this group that the bullies lurk. I doubt it, however, since when one obtains a history of bullying from a victim, one gets the impression of bullies being sneakier than those whose impulse control is so poor that they are suspended or arrested for hurting others. Innuendo and plausible deniability characterize the bully and there is often an impression that bullies can be in the “cool group”, from which so many are excluded.

In actual fact, bullying is minimized and normalized: “Kids can be cruel.” or “They were only joking.” It’s not seen for the aggression it is. If someone does mention that they do sometimes try to scare other people and one asks, “You mean you’ve bullied people?” , the youth or their parent can be affronted. I have learned to ask more gently about this because, really, no one wants to be a bully or to have a child who is a bully.

A bully is a coward. Youth with impulse control problems, who are clearly aggressive are not cowards – they may be frightened but they’re not cowards. When you’re aggressive, you are courageous in taking action. It doesn’t take courage to exclude someone, it takes courage to include them and to stand up for them. Youth are bullied for being gay, for being newcomers, for disabilities, for being poor, for being smart, for not being smart, for anything that makes them different. Bullies are experts at what makes others different. It’s a skill that does require some empathy. We must find a way to help these youth become something better – they have it in them. Also, we owe it to their victims.

We can all admire victims. They have courage to spare and wisdom beyond their years. We want them to speak up and ask for help, so that they do not suffer the fate of Rehtaeh Parsons. The evidence shows that our society is slowly becoming more effective in dealing with bullying. We are identifying the victims and ensuring that they get the support they deserve.

If our progress is slow, I believe it is because we are forgetting the bullies. Our success in ending bullying depends on remembering them. Send the bullies for treatment, when you find them. I am waiting to have someone say, “I’m a bully and I want to change.”