The latest research looking at the effects of bullying on children's mental health makes for grim reading: at least half of child suicides in Britain are related to bullying, and for every suicide there are at least 100 children who attempt to take their own lives.
We also know that bullying has a toxic triple effect: feeling unsafe both at home and at school, substantial physical health consequences, and long term mental health difficulties that can go on well into adulthood. And with the advent of the internet and a sharp rise in cyberbullying which has now overtaken more traditional face to face methods of harassment, bullies are now able to verbally intimidate and assault victims round the clock.
This kind of ongoing abuse can be hugely damaging to a child's mental development. Children who have experienced bullying may become prone to depression so serious that it could lead to psychiatric disorders requiring specialised treatment in adulthood. Other symptoms include poor self esteem, psychosis, anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse, all of which can be fatal.
For the one in three children worldwide who are victims of bullying, it may seem as if bullies hold all the cards. Bullying is characterised as ongoing, aggressive behaviour engaged in by an individual or peer with more power than the victim, but what the definition doesn't highlight is the sense of powerlessness that motivates bullies, and the developing mental health concerns they suffer with, either well before becoming self proclaimed bullies, or after. Bullies, it seems, don't come out unscathed after all. In fact, they are more likely to engage in anti social behaviour and will find it harder to cope with life's challenges. And just like victims, bullies experience an increased risk of depression and suicide.
As if that wasn't enough, research has emerged that suggests bullying could be more detrimental to a child's mental health than physical abuse. A US study of 1,420 children found that those who had been bullied, but not maltreated, were almost four times more likely to have mental health problems than children who were maltreated (but not bullied). And in a similar UK study involving 4,026 children, those who had experienced only bullying were 1.6 times more likely than those who experienced only maltreatment to have mental health problems, or to have attempted to self harm.
So why do we continue to diminish the effect bullying has on children's mental health?
One possible answer lies in the way adults react to bullying, and how children feel they should respond when they pick up on those cues. When adolescents in a study on cyberbullying were asked whether they would recommend asking a parent for help, some felt telling a parent meant they would have their mobile phones confiscated and internet access privileges revoked, whilst others felt their parents would tell them to just ignore the problem, or would be unable to help due to a lack of understanding about cyberspace. Worryingly, parental apathy in this context appeared to rub off on children - another study found that 90% of victims don't tell their parents about their experiences at all, and 50% of those children justified this approach by suggesting they needed to deal with the bullying on their own. The research also suggests that bullying is sometimes seen as a right of passage, but the truth is much more sinister. Bullying is not a right of passage at all, it's a brutal assault on the healthy development of our children.
Whilst well meaning sites and child welfare charities will advise parents to 'monitor' and 'supervise' their children online, that kind of parenting can sometimes feel overwhelming. It can also send out the message that children can't be trusted, and could lead to more secretive behaviour which could place a child at risk. There is no substitute for building positive, trusting relationships with children, whether as a parent or teacher. This can be achieved just by spending time with children, talking to them and allowing children to feel that they have someone to confide in when they need to. Establishing open, unconditional pathways is vital to winning the war against bullying and provides early intervention opportunities before the bullying sets in and causes long term mental health problems for children.