Bullying at school can be harmful for both the victim and perpetrator in the short and long term. Programmes that aim to reduce bullying require buy-in from the whole school and parent support.

The start of the school year was met with reports that many children were worried about going back due to bullying. Bullying is defined according to three features: it is aggressive behaviour that is intended to cause distress or harm, it involves a power imbalance, and it occurs repeatedly over time. It is increasingly recognised that bullying does not concern only the victim and perpetrator, but bystanders too. Those who observe bullying without intervening can inadvertently provide social rewards for the bully, while contributing to the isolation felt by the victim.

Not everyone appreciates the negative impact that bullying can have, with views differing widely between, as well as within, countries. For instance, some people argue that bullying is a normal part of childhood, increasing resilience for later life, while others think the victim is to blame for not standing up for themselves. In some cases, parents may be proud of a child who bullies, believing them to show strength.

The truth is that bullying can have severe negative consequences for both victims and perpetrators. Involvement in bullying as either the victim or perpetrator is associated with depression and criminal activity later in life. Being a victim of bullying is also linked to low psychological wellbeing, poor social adjustment, psychological distress, and even physical ill-health. Bullying needs to be taken seriously, as the consequences are potentially life-changing.

Aiming for prevention

Clearly, the best approach in trying to combat bullying and its ill-effects is prevention. Different types of anti-bullying programmes have been adopted by schools aiming to prevent bullying. Whole-school approaches, such as widely adopted KiVa in Finland, focus on bystanders and their reactions, rather than specifically on bullies or victims. This requires implementation of a range of activities including films, discussions, group work, and role-play. The undertaking for the school is intense, but the programme is effective in reducing bullying.

Other programmes focus on social and/or cognitive skills training, which involves discussion between pupils. The aim is to increase flexible and rational thinking, enabling children to monitor their emotions.

It is important to point out that not all anti-bullying programmes are effective. For example, programmes that focus on reasoning abilities may not lead to a reduction in bullying if children have not applied these skills to their own lives. There is still a lot of work to be done in figuring out the best ingredients to prevent bullying.

“Bullying should be treated as a group phenomenon, appreciating that everyone in the school has a role to play.”

No attempt at prevention will lead to a complete absence of bullying, so intervention is also necessary when bullying does occur. In KiVa, incidents of bullying are met with individual and group discussions with the victim, perpetrator, and school staff, with later follow-up meetings. There are also meetings with other classmates, who provide support for the victim. While prevention is the aim, systems need to be in place for when bullying does occur.

There is no easy fix when it comes to reducing bullying. The first step is for schools and parents to accept that bullying is a problem that occurs in all schools. Bullying should then be treated as a group phenomenon, appreciating that everyone in the school has a role to play.

Support needs to be given to the whole school in tackling this complex issue, with victims and bullies equally considered to be at potential harm. Thankfully, anti-bullying programmes are continuing to be developed and analysed, with the successes so far demonstrating that effective action can be taken to reduce bullying and its consequences.

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