DR QURATULAIN ZAIDI of MindNLife discusses bullying, an all-too-common phenomenon found in schools (and, indeed, the daily life of adults) around the world, including Hong Kong.
What is bullying?
Bullying is defined as repeated interpersonal behaviour, typically between children with unequal power, which is intended to do physical or psychological harm, and can lead to other negative outcomes for both the bully and the victim. It can start as early as age six or seven.
Different types of bullying
There are different kinds of bullying. Verbal bullying, for example, is the use of words and name-calling to gain power over a target, potentially leaving deep emotional scars. It can be confusing for someone to try and work out whether such name-calling is “banter” or bullying; in short, if it becomes persistent and regular, it’s bullying. It’s equally about how you feel, too; if the words make you uncomfortable and you have told the person to stop but they persist, this is what we call verbal bullying.
Physical bullying is the most obvious form of bullying; it occurs when a person uses physical force to gain power over a target. If you suspect your child is being physically bullied, start a casual conversation – ask what’s going on at school, during recess or on the way home. Based on the responses, ask your child if anyone is being mean to them – and do try to keep your emotions in check. Emphasise the value of open, ongoing communication with you and with teachers or school counsellors. Document the dates and times of bullying incidents, the responses from people involved, and the actions that have been taken. Don’t contact the parents of the bully or bullies to resolve matters on your own.
Relational bullying involves exclusionary tactics – deliberately preventing someone from joining or being part of a group, whether it’s at a lunch table, game, sport or social activity. With this kind of bullying you need to watch for mood changes, withdrawal from peer groups, and a shift toward being alone more than usual. Girls are more likely than boys to experience social exclusion through nonverbal or emotional intimidation. The pain can be as strong as with physical bullying, and can last longer.
Again, talk to your child and ask about their day. Help them find things to make them feel positive about themselves, and make sure they know there are people who love and care about them. Focus on developing their talents and interests in music, arts, athletics, reading and after-school activities so your kids build relationships outside of school.
10 Signs Your Child Might Be Being Bullied
- Unexplainable injuries
- Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewellery
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
- Changes in eating habits
- Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
- Declining grades
- Loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
- Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
- Feelings of helplessness, anxiety or decreased self esteem
- Self-destructive behaviours
Don’t feed the trolls!
While cyberbullying tends to involve people who are known to each other (even if the bully is seeking to hide their identity), trolling is often carried out by someone without a clear relationship to the recipient. Children and adults alike can be the target of trolling. A “troll” leaves intentionally provocative or offensive messages on the internet in order to get attention, cause trouble or upset someone. Some trolls target public figures with large social media followings in the hope that their hateful messages are re-broadcast to a wider audience. More relevant here is the second type of troll, who exhibits a psychological trait known as “negative social potency”. These trolls get pleasure from upsetting the people they target. If their victim responds, it only encourages them to continue.
Why do some people think it’s okay to say racist, inflammatory or otherwise socially inappropriate things online? Research shows that there are both environmental and individual factors involved.
Anonymity is a key factor. Anyone can be anonymous online, and this opens the door to trolling. There’s also the notion that there isn’t much authority or accountability online; individuals feel they can behave differently because they won’t come face to face with their targets. This can drive more deviant behaviour.
Another factor is tribalism. Trolls can have a perceived sense of importance, of being part of the majority. When many members of a group are trolling someone, individuals can feel a sense of belonging by conforming to that group’s behaviour. Studies also show that trolls can feel disconnected from guilt, empathy, remorse and responsibility. They also show higher levels of sadism traits. Online forums – particularly unregulated ones – are the ideal hunting grounds for such individuals. They can stoke flames and cause anxiety from the comfort of a chair. The suffering they cause isn’t apparent to them because they aren’t face to face with their victims.
Dealing with trolls
So, what should we do if we encounter trolls? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to handling trolling, but these are some general principles:
- Don’t feed the trolls and don’t respond to them
- Block their accounts
- Don’t post online that you’re being targeted
- Take a break from social media
- Go to the social support networks in your real life
- If you feel threatened or the behaviour is otherwise unlawful, report it to the social media platform and legal authorities
Cyberbullying, or bullying in cyberspace, involves haranguing someone by spreading mean words, lies and false rumours through emails, text messages and social media posts. While overall trends show a decrease in the forms of bullying mentioned earlier, since 2007, instances of cyberbullying have gone up.
What can you do as a parent? See if your child spends more time online (on messaging platforms or social media apps such as Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, for instance) but appears to be sad and anxious afterward. Also take note if they have trouble sleeping, beg to stay home from school, or withdraw from activities they once loved.
Mean messages can be distributed quickly, leading to 24/7 cyberbullying, so it’s important to establish household rules for internet safety. Agree on age-appropriate time limits. Know the popular and potentially abusive sites and apps before your kids use them, and let them know that you’ll be monitoring their online activities. Tell them that if they experience cyberbullying, they shouldn’t engage, respond or forward it. Instead, they should inform you so you can print out the messages, including dates and times when they were received. Report cyberbullying to the school and the online service provider.
A final word
As parents, we need to be aware of the long-term consequences of bullying. A recent study in Finland showed that around 23 percent of kids who were victims of frequent bullying had sought help for psychiatric problems before age 30. In addition, around 20 percent of people who were the bullies themselves as children had a mental health problem that needed medical treatment as a teen or young adult. The statistics are likely to be similar in Hong Kong. Indeed, this is a place where people can feel somewhat entitled to behave badly, not just at school, but in marriages, at work and professionally through an inflated sense of self. But we all need to stand up to bullies; just because they’re here, in this part of the world, they can’t get away with it.
Finally, if you or your children are struggling with mental health concerns around any type of bullying, seek help from a professional.
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families in her private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of NGOs and international corporations.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.