This past Wednesday Amanda Todd of Port Coquitlam, B.C. ended her own life because of bullying she faced. The local media, quite rightly, is asking serious questions about how this could have happened and how we as a society should deal with it. As an elementary teacher in a Metro Vancouver school district for 16 years, I have dealt with bullying issues each year. Bullying often happens at recess or lunch, out of the prying eyes of supervising adults, and it is usually insidious with whispered put-downs or threats rather than overt physical aggression. Often the only way teachers become aware of an issue is when a student tells on the bully or frustrated parents come to the school. The victim of bullying often is too intimidated to say anything, thereby perpetuating the problem.
But what is bullying? Too often children, and parents, don’t see themselves as bullies. If most people have dealt with being bullied in one form or another throughout their lives, then there must be more than just a handful of bullies. What of those people who have witnessed bullying but do nothing to stop it? The victim feels scared and alone and the bystanders may as well be actively participating in the bullying. Not many people are willing to step up and stop aggression for fear of reprisals or being excluded from the group. These are all scenarios and skills we teach children in schools through social responsibility lessons. However, children don’t learn negative or positive behaviours in isolation in a classroom setting. They learn through modeling. I believe that adults teach children with their words or actions that it is ok to go after people who are perceived as weaker than them or somehow different and thus deserving of the unwanted attention
I was overtly bullied in grade seven and I was often scared to be at school. Looking back I can see that the teacher, who didn’t like me for whatever reason, modelled for those students that it was ok to treat me poorly. Former friends abandoned me when the socially dominant girls targeted me. My mother asked the teacher and principal on numerous occasions if there was something I was doing to invite the bullying, something about me that was a target for the bullies and they assured her there was nothing. But obviously they saw some weakness in me. Did the girls who targeted me see themselves as bullies? They claimed that they did not know that I was bothered by their behaviour.
A boy I knew in the same school was chased by a number of students each recess and lunch each day. He was taunted and threatened, which made him lash out at his tormentors, which made his peers felt justified in targeting him. It became the break-time game for these children and everyone would laugh at his reactions. Adults were aware of what he was going through. He struggled throughout his life with addiction and depression, and I recently learned of his death. Although it is unclear what happened, I have surmised that he died as a result of his personal demons.
I had a student who had difficulties dealing with his feelings, which caused problems with his peers. They became frustrated with him and created a Facebook group where they bashed him. When he learned of this he retaliated by posting YouTube videos about the students. Someone told on him, and through the unravelling of the situation the school learned about the Facebook page. When parents were brought in to deal with the issue most parents wouldn’t believe that their child would be involved in the on-line bullying. Some parents excused their children’s behaviour, saying that they either didn’t say anything bad in the Facebook group or that they only participated because someone told them to. Some of the students felt justified because the boy was “annoying.”
We live in a world where people with disabilities are called retarded, and where the word itself is used as a put-down when bullying someone. Many feel it is still perfectly acceptable to call people fat and make fun of how they look because, well, they’re fat, right? Girls are called sluts and boys are called fags. Who knows what children overhear adults saying about people they don’t like, but they do hear it because they repeat it at school, on the playground and now on the internet.
Amanda Todd was repeatedly bullied after making a mistake at twelve years old. She felt like she was trapped because her mistakes are preserved on-line in the most public of forums, and they are permanent. Momentary errors in judgement, like indiscreet photos posted on Facebook will follow this generation of digital natives and may affect future job prospects or relationships. Thank goodness there is no permanent record of some of the things I did and said at twelve years old.
I’m sure that her tormentors felt that Amanda deserved her treatment. There have been comments posted on line that it was her fault that she exposed her body on-line and she had to deal with the consequences of her actions. I’m sure that the person who made the comment doesn’t see him or herself as a bully, but it is that very mentality that will guarantee that bullying will continue. We blame the victim rather than show compassion for people. We hold grudges rather than forgive. Why do people feel threatened by weakness?
Bullying has always existed, it just has a new medium. Social media can connect people and be used for good. It is a part of the world now and another way that people communicate. But we do need to teach our children how to use it. The bullying is occurring outside of school hours, and again, adults only become aware of it when someone tells. Each and every parent needs to become aware of their children’s digital footprint and regularly check in on them on the internet. Talking about safety should be an on-going discussion. Who do they chat with on web cam? Are they aware of on-line predators and how they prey upon trusting young boys and girls? What kind of pictures should they post? Who is a digital “friend”; is it only someone they have met face-to-face? Would you say this to the person’s face or are they hiding behind anonymity of the internet? There are some good “digital citizenship” programs for teachers and parents.
Amanda Todd’s mother is a teacher in Coquitlam who works with technology and is more tech savvy than the average parent, yet this happened to her daughter. This is a complex problem and cannot be boiled down to more money for schools to solve the problem as children’s digital lives are occurring outside school hours and out of the eyes of adults in their lives. I am not blaming parents by saying this; I am a parent as well. I just don’t believe that we can expect schools to solve every problem that society faces. Yes, school is the common ground that all youth share and changing attitudes and behaviours should be continually reinforced in schools.
But everyone in society needs to work together to support and protect our youth. It starts with confronting what we as adults say and do when we don’t get along with someone; children learn bullying, and other negative beliefs, from somewhere. It extends to being honest about our children and their behaviour when they are in the public realm; sometimes they do things that go against what we value and have taught them. It is not a parenting failure if our child stumbles – it is a learning opportunity for them and us. What a great way to model compassion!
And I do believe that we need serious consequences and possibly laws for bullying. Perhaps we need to stop referring to it as bullying and use harassment. Bullying seems to conjure school-yard problems and not the serious issues we face when people no longer feel safe because of repeated verbal and physical intimidation.
Christy, an elementary teacher, wants to live as an example for her three daughters. She blogs at www.ecojourneyintheburbs.blogspot.ca