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Bullying is a viral relationship problem

Heinrich Volschenk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Like many people, I was shocked to hear of yet another teenager being driven to despair by incessant bullying. As a parent, my first reaction was to question what's happening in our schools, our communities and our homes. Who is to blame and how do we stop them? What would drive a person to derive enjoyment from another's suffering, not once but repeatedly?

As a psychologist, I know some of the answers to these disturbing questions – but certainly not all of them. Teasing, bullying and harassment aren't new, but it's only recently that researchers and the public have grown to understand their significance in a child's development and adult life. Bullying is no longer considered a normal part of growing up but as a dangerous testing ground for some of the most pernicious forms of relational abuse, often with few consequences for the offender but many for the victim.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's biannual survey of Ontario youth informs us that one-third of students report being bullied at school, and nearly a third report bullying others. Do these figures mean that bullying is so common we can't do much about it, that it's just part of growing up? Or do we recognize that we have a public health issue in our schools and homes that requires "inoculation" of all students, teachers, administrators and parents? We may not know all the causes of bullying, but we know enough to do something about it.

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Bullying is not about an argument, a fight or an insult tossed out in anger. Rather, it consists of systematic, repeated and persistent attempts to cause fear, distress or harm to another person or their sense of safety, self-worth or reputation. Notably, studies emphasize that bullying occurs in a relationship context where there's a real or perceived power imbalance.

Forget the notion that there are bullies and there are victims, and somehow we can identify who they are and get them the proper help. It's clear that some young people will purposefully create an imbalance of power, most likely in an attempt to bolster their own status with peers. Some bullies become victims, and some victims learn to bully. The critical issue underlying this dynamic is that bullying occurs in an attempt to establish relationships based on power, rather than on equality or trust.

Bullies have always relied on physical, verbal and social methods of intimidation and domination, but they now have access to almost unlimited forms of technology that shield their identities from authorities. This has taken young people further from the reality that violence is a human behaviour that causes suffering, loss and sadness. Rather, "entertainment violence" triggers visceral thrills in the audience without portraying much human cost. To many youths, violence depicted in television, movies and video games is acceptable or even amusing. For some, negotiating relationships is made simpler by breaking them down into victims and victimizers.

Canadian students' reports of bullying rank near the middle in comparison with 35 other countries, which I find surprising and disturbing given our noted concern for human rights. We can reverse the spread of bullying by first acknowledging that it's not normal or typical behaviour, that it's not harmless and that we can do something about it. We need to revise our beliefs of what it means to be a bullying victim. And we need to think of bullying as a viral relationship problem, not a fact of life.

Prevention is everyone's responsibility but least of all the victim's. Our school systems are getting up to speed in this regard. CAMH's Fourth R project is a school-based program developed to help adolescents form healthy relationships and make better choices while they navigate critical developmental minefields such as substance use, sexual relationships, bullying and violence. This new awareness among schools may be too late for many but has the potential to curb such behaviour before it gets out of hand.

But don't just leave it up to the schools. When you ask how a child's day went, remember to ask how it was for the child's friends, too. Did he hear of someone getting "teased" on Facebook? Does she worry about being bullied? Does he feel safe at school? Parents need to ask themselves what they may inadvertently be doing or not doing to promote this activity. Are insults and put-downs between siblings ignored? Does everyone enjoy a good joke at another's expense or humiliation on the latest TV show? Are respectful interactions demonstrated at home? While a situation like Amanda Todd's is tragic, news reports about bullying's harm can be used as teachable moments.

How a child learns to relate to others is analogous to building a house: Early relationships form the foundation for future ones. It's more likely that children and teens who engage in bullying will carry these patterns into future relationships with spouses, children and colleagues. This can't be what we want for our children and grandchildren – so let's turn some serious attention to reducing bullying by promoting healthy, non-abusive relationships.

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David A. Wolfe is senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and director of the Fourth R program.

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