History gives us many examples of people standing by instead of standing up to do what's right. In last week's Globe and Mail, there was a disturbing story about how passengers failed to help a 79-year-old man who was being mugged on a Toronto subway car, despite his cries for help. By not intervening, bystanders failed this man and inadvertently reinforced his attackers. Why does this inaction surprise and shock us? After all, it happens to about 10 per cent of children every day at school. About 30 per cent of students are involved as witnesses or as fellow aggressors. Peers, teachers and other adults rarely intervene to help a child who is being victimized - they either fail to recognize the problem or they turn a blind eye.
For Yusuf Hizel, the poor man on the subway, this was a terrible, random act. For children who are bullied at school, it is sanctioned violence. They know who is going to bully them, when it is going to happen and where it is going to happen. They experience the equivalent of a mugging every day.
Bullying is a significant social problem. More than 1,100,000 school-aged Canadian children are victimized by bullying at least once a week, and more than 550,000 school-aged children report bullying others at least once a week. Bullying isn't a normal or expected part of childhood. It is a hurtful and aggressive act with lasting consequences. Being bullied can lead to physical and mental health problems - and in extreme cases, suicide. At its core, bullying is a relationship problem. It is about an imbalance of power with repeated aggression, with harm as its intent. It takes many forms - social, verbal, physical, cyber. This is not a rite of passage.
In individuals and societies, health and well-being are inversely associated with antisocial activity. Children and youth who bully others at a high and persistent level are more likely to engage in many forms of problem behaviour (delinquency, sexual harassment, dating aggression and substance use, for example) compared to peers who do not bully. There is an intergenerational link: Parents who bullied in childhood are likely to have children who bully. Intervention is essential to promote safe and healthy relationships and break the cycle of using power and aggression to control and distress others.
Mr. Hizel, the victim of the Toronto subway mugging, deserved better. His fellow passengers needed to stand up, not stand by. Research on this kind of behaviour suggests they did not intervene because of fear or diffusion of responsibility (they believed others would act). We are saddened that these bystanders were so disengaged and demonstrated such apathy. Is this the type of society we want to live in - where apathy, fear and disengagement allow others to be harmed? Is this the society we want for our children, who are also vulnerable? They need people to stand up, not stand by.
History is filled with examples of people overcoming apathy by acknowledging it, and collectively advocating on behalf of the vulnerable. There is hope in the outrage expressed about what happened to Mr. Hizel. We also should be outraged about the experiences of children who are victimized at school. The next step is to move from acknowledging the problem to actively intervening, supporting and advocating for others.
Dr. Wendy Craig is scientific co-director of the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network at Queen's University. Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt is a professor at the University of Ottawa. Dr. Debra Pepler is scientific co-director of the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network at York University.