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How we can tackle the iceberg of bullying

17 November 2017

Dave Traxson gives an educational psychologist's perspective on how we can proactively tackle bullying in our society, as we reach the end of Anti-Bullying Week 2017.

Bullying is a growing and negative social phenomenon that is like an iceberg of hate floating around every dark corner, organisation, and institution in our society for many vulnerable individuals. The nine tenths of the metaphorical iceberg that is hidden from our view, along with the visible tenth that we all are aware of around us, does inestimable damage to our individual and collective wellbeing and mental health. This results in a huge social and financial cost to society with tragic consequences - contributing significantly, we believe, to suicidal thoughts and eventually suicide itself, which is now the largest single cause of death in 18 to 34 year old males.

Bullying is defined as the repeated verbal, physical, or emotional harassment by one or more persons of a targeted individual or group. Its aim is to humiliate the victims, who are targeted in a way that damages their feelings of self-worth and takes away their ‘personal power’. This can lead to a deterioration in the victim’s physical and mental health, having short and long term consequences on their life outcomes. All too often these perpetrators are in fact people who have been victimised themselves, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of hate speech and deed even more.

Open and caring societies or organisations can clearly intervene and impact positively on this cyclical pattern, and we know that ‘talking/telling schools’ can significantly reduce bullying incidents, whereas organisations that have an aggressive leadership and cultural blindness to bullying do in fact increase the prevalence of bullying within their walls. We have seen this in some notable media headlines recently, with certain companies and systems promoting a bullying culture to all those who come under their pernicious influence.

Bullying can indeed be positively tackled using approaches like mindful vigilance, where all the people within an organisation can actively create an ethos of caring for all. We know this from other countries and systems where bullying is less tolerated than our own, which leads to fewer social costs for society. Historically in Britain institutionalised bullying was tolerated in some public schools, state grammar schools, church schools run by some denominations, the armed forces, and many business organisations.

Commonly held misconceptions were that the experience was character building, when in fact once the surface was scratched it had done that individual great and lasting harm. In all circumstances bullying is an abuse of personal power in order to exert control over other vulnerable human beings. These groups include the disabled, people expressing their sexual preferences/identity, religious, racial and cultural groups, children and adults with special educational needs, and people that slightly stick out from the crowd in a multitude of ways. A bully therefore has a wide potential pool of victims from which to choose.

Bullying damages a person’s self-esteem and significantly heightens their distress levels, which can then impact on their sleep, eating, and general health, as with any chronic to acute anxiety problem.

The newest variation of bullying, which is rapidly escalating, is cyber bullying, which can reach the most private spaces in a person’s life. Using social media, a bully can harass another individual at any time of day or night, or in any location anywhere in the world, potentially even having the ability to track someone’s movements.

As a society we have clear choices that we can make to address and improve the situation. It is about a consistent and universal approach, allowing us to respond to each situation where bullying occurs, rather than an unduly harsh response which could escalate the cycle of revenge further. Indeed, one very successful approach used in school typifies this - called the ‘No Blame Approach’ - a statement or piece of writing from the victim is used to elicit a supportive response from a child’s classmates who become actively involved in monitoring the person’s wellbeing and in supporting their sense of belonging to the group. We need to act in this caring and consistent was as a society, above all, to help to remedy this social malaise.

Dave Traxson has been an educational psychologist for thirty five years and has been involved in a number of anti-bullying initiatives. He is a member of our Division of Educational and Child Psychology committee.

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