Bullying is when a person inflicts abuse, intimidation, domination, coercion, force, hurtful teasing or threats upon someone else. This behaviour is often repetitive, aggressive and is intended to hurt another individual physically, emotionally and mentally. It is a form of physical or social power which can take place anywhere and it can happen to anyone at any age. Bullying can take place in individual or group form.
Bullying is a major issue in Ireland yet it is often ignored or brushed under the carpet. It has a significant impact on victims, and the pain and trauma ultimately stays with them for the rest of their lives.
I decided to delve further into this topic by conducting research focused on bullying in schools and the workplace and carrying out interviews.
Bullying in school and the workplace is often referred to as “peer abuse”. Sometimes, bullying within an organisation or school is visible, but often what is observed is not the full scale of what’s going on.
Research by NUI Galway, University of Limerick and Plymouth University shows that almost one-in-ten employees in Ireland have recent experience of being bullied.
A report by DCU shows that many cases taken to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) cited either bullying and harassment (47 percent) or bullying only (34.5 percent) as the reason for unfair dismissal. Male employees (57.5 percent) were more likely to bring their case involving either bullying, harassment or victimisation to the WRC, compared to female employees (42.5 percent).
Last year the Children’s Ombudsman Dr. Niall Muldoon said his office had dealt with more than 400 complaints about bullying in schools, both at primary and post-primary level, since 2018. This equated to almost ten percent of all complaints to the Ombudsman’s Office.
Men were more likely to be the alleged perpetrator of a bullying case (49 percent) versus women (almost 21 percent). Findings also show that 46 percent of organisations followed some antibullying procedures, while almost 37 percent did not follow any recorded procedure to deal with the bullying cases.
All schools should have an anti-bullying policy in place, and this should be followed at all times. Unfortunately, in my opinion there are lots of schools that handle bullying in a very poor manner. This has a detrimental effect on victims, and as a result, students are scared to speak up and bullying gets worse.
It goes without saying that our relationship with social media and the online world has grown significantly over the last few years.
This is backed up by a report from 2021 by the National Advisory Council for Online Safety (NACOS), which found that interaction with the online environment is a “daily occurrence amongst almost all age groups”. The report states that digital technology use is pervasive for young people. It reported that 62 percent of children and young people (aged 9-17 years) use social media, and spend an average of about two hours online on weekdays and a little over three hours online per day during weekends.
Of course there are risks to online use, the most notable one being ‘cyberbullying’. So, what is the definition of this term? Cyberbullying is anything that is posted online that is intended to hurt or upset someone else, regardless of what the topic is, is considered to be cyberbullying.
While it has been a global problem for many years now, cyberbullying became more prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic, as people had more free time. In 2020, a joint study between the European Commission and researchers at Dublin City University found cyberbullying among Irish children increased by 28 percent during the lockdown. This was one of the highest rates in Europe, followed by Italy and Germany.
According to the report, just under half of the children who said they were victims of cyberbullying, told a parent or caregiver. 19 percent of victims said they told a friend and 9 percent told a school counsellor, a teacher or a principal. Just under a tenth of the children said the problem they reported was ignored.
71 percent of children said they used smartphones during the lockdown more often than before. 72 percent of children who use social media said they used it more often than before the lockdown and 65 percent of children who use direct/instant messaging like WhatsApp or Telegram said they used it more often than before the lockdown.
The findings in this report are backed up by Jim Harding, who is the Founder and Director of Bully 4u (a not for profit Anti-Bullying service for Irish Schools). He says the pandemic saw a “worrying trend” of young people visiting random webchats.
He mentions that the social media platforms most popular amongst young people are TikTok and Snapchat.
Why people bully others
According to Mike Wilkins, who is a counsellor with the Irish Online Counselling and Psychotherapy Service, bullies often suffer from low self esteem or feelings of inadequacy. They may struggle with self comparison, envy and jealousy.
Bullies may have experienced trauma or stress in recent times, such as the loss of a loved one, parents splitting up or the gaining of a younger sibling.
“They could have been victims of bullying themselves or have bullying or violence in their home lives,” he states.
Those who bully are looking to gain power or control of their victim. The easiest way to do this is by picking on something unique to them, so that they can create an insecurity around this and use it to hurt their victim, either physically, mentally or both.
People who bully others may not have access to education, so they may not understand what ‘hate-based’ conversation is and that speaking to people in a certain way is not acceptable behaviour.
Bullies are more likely to have lifelong issues such as depression or problems with aggression. But early treatment can prevent this from happening.
The effects of bullying
Meanwhile, someone who is bullied becomes self-critical, they start questioning themselves and their self worth. They become self conscious and can often withdraw into themselves. This can have a negative impact on both their mental and physical health.
According to Mike Wilkins,“Victims of bullying can lose interest in things that they would normally enjoy, they isolate themselves. They can feel confused as to why this is happening to them – especially if they feel that they haven’t done anything wrong. They can feel worthless, useless, irritable”.
Signs that your child is being bullied can sometimes be very evident. For example, they don’t want to go to school, they are unusually secretive and quiet, they have no friends, they have angry outbursts, they have damaged or missing belongings, they don’t sleep properly, they wet the bed or have physical injuries like scratches or bruises.
Many victims feel the bullying is their fault and often feel hopeless because they don’t know how to get out of the situation. They regularly feel confused, stressed, guilty and ashamed of what is happening. In extreme cases, some people who are bullied may start self-harming or attempt suicide.
So what do you do if you are being bullied?
The important thing to note here is that it is not your fault.
“If you are being bullied in school, understand that it is not ok and there is a way out of things. It is also important that you speak to someone; a teacher, head of year, parent, relation or an older sibling. It isn’t easy to do this sometimes but you will feel better for doing so. A teacher can keep an eye on the situation without confronting the bullies which is a good way of monitoring what is happening,” says counsellor Mike.
However, in most cases this is easier said than done. It is important to note that very few children tell anyone that they are being bullied for fear it will make the situation worse.
“If there is bullying in the work place I think it is important to speak up, talk to a colleague or your boss about the situation if you can. If you have to escalate to Human Resources (HR) or another manager then that is ok. It is is important to understand policies and procedures of how your company works,” says Mike.
What if you witness bullying?
“I would say that if you witness bullying then stand up and acknowledge that it is wrong. I do understand that at school it is hard for a child to stand up and it may be easy to be a bystander or, through fear of reprisal, do nothing. Similar in the workplace it is important to stand up if you feel comfortable doing so but from my experience the person that speaks up may face consequences that aren’t fair but it unfortunately happens,” says Mike.
If your child is being bullied then stay focused on finding a solution, assure your child it is not their fault, talk to them about different ways to relate to the bully, practising with them through role play. Let the child know you will contact their school.
In the workplace, bullying can be determined by both what has been said in the courts and what is written in the Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work) Order 2020 (S.I. No. 674 of 2020) which defines bullying in the workplace as:
“Repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work, but, as a once off incident, is not considered to be bullying.”
What constitutes bullying, and the test required, is derived from a Supreme Court case called Ruffley (2017) where Charleton J stated that the test for bullying is objective – employers can intervene and instruct an employee to do work and even, if necessary, take disciplinary action. The test derived by the court defines bullying as being behaviour that is: repeated, inappropriate and reasonably capable of undermining dignity at work.
The court stated that all of these elements need to be present to constitute bullying – this can be quite a high threshold to meet but it is a necessary evil to also protect the rights of the employer.