Why bullying matters: An interview with Dr. Joanne Cummings

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When I was around 10 and 11 years old, at an old fashioned Jewish summer camp, I found myself surrounded on all sides by bullies -- people who I'd thought were my friends who turned out to make great sport of moving my mattress, while I soundly slept, from the summer camp cabin all the way to the docks where the canoes and kayaks were.

Or there was the time that they stole my Walkman. Some may say that this is a relatively minor case, "boys will be boys" and so on. And compared to the cases of bullying that we've been hearing out over the last few years, it is a minor case, though it presented an institutional context in which there was no mechanism with which to deal with bullying even in its most simple form.

In the last few years, with the spate of teen suicides, cyber-bullying and the backlash of the far right against anti-bullying programmes, bullying has moved from a schoolyard descriptor into a term of public policy. 

Yet in the most recent case in which bullying was a serious issue, some have begun to question the efficacy of labelling gendered harassment of teenagers as "bullying." This is a serious question, so, like I did when I was a kid, I called my mom to talk about it. My mother is Dr. Joanne Cummings, an expert on bullying who was writing and speaking on the issue for some time before it became part of the public policy language.

Jordy Cummings: What is bullying? 

Dr. Joanne Cummings: We define bullying as a relationship problem in which a) there is an imbalance of power between the two people, and b) the person with more power uses aggression to control or distress the other. Children and youth can acquire power over another child or youth in a variety of ways: through being older, bigger, stronger, more able, or through "ganging up" (many against one). We feel strongly that bullying should be understood by locating it within a relationship perspective because it is best addressed through fostering children and youth's capacity to engage in healthy relationships and to create healthy and just communities. 

There are many forms of bullying: physical, verbal, and indirect or social (e.g., excluding people, spreading rumours, damaging another person's relationships). The content of bullying (i.e., what is said or done) changes as children develop. Feeling safe in relationships is a basic human right, and bullying violates that right. Feeling included in one's social context (whether a classroom or a workplace) is critical to mental health; exclusion causes pain in the same part of the brain that processes physical pain. 

What are the social determinants of bullying?

The 2010 Health Behaviours of School-age Children (HBSC) Survey asked a nationally representative sample of Canadian students (Grades 6 through 10) about their involvement in bullying over the last two months. Three quarters of students reported involvement: 22 per cent were bullied, 12 per cent bullied others, and 41 per cent were both bullied and bullied others. This speaks to the pervasiveness of bullying. Teasing and indirect bullying were the most common forms. 

Not surprisingly, greater levels of bullying involvement were associated with more self-reported emotional and behavioral problems. Research repeatedly demonstrates that negative outcomes are amplified when a child or youth both bullies others and is also bullied, and these negative outcomes are further compounded when the bullying is frequent and has gone on for a long time. The HBSC survey found that about 5 per cent of boys and 6 per cent of girls were bullied more than once a week and that 3 per cent of boys and 1 per cent of girls reported bullying others more than once a week. In repeated research studies, such high rates of bullying involvement are predictive of mental illness, weapon carrying, and leaving school before graduation. 

Tell me about anti-bullying programs. What mechanisms of accountability are put in place both for the the bully and for the institution in which bullying is embedded?

 The most effective bullying prevention programs are systemic, that is they are based on clearly articulated institutional policies that affirm everyone's right to respect, apply to everyone in a community (e.g., school administrators, teachers/leaders, auxiliary staff, parents, children and youth), and apply to all social interactions within the community whether between adults and children, whether face-to-face or online.

Research shows that bullying prevention is most successful in a school that prioritizes a healthy social climate in which diversity, originality and authenticity are celebrated, and in which caring and kind behaviour is recognized and rewarded. In successful programs, adults make an intentional effort to model respect in all of their dealings with colleagues, parents and children.

Effective bullying prevention programs are both programmatic -- utilizing formal learning activities, and spontaneous -- utilizing emergent "teachable moments" whenever they occur. Formal learning activities are developmentally appropriate for children from preschool to high school, and occur throughout the school year. A one-off assembly won't do it. What can do it is ongoing learning about and recognition for kindness, fairness, justice, upholding human rights and the social responsibility to stand up for others.  

The federal NDP has put forward a motion for a national anti-bullying initiative. Why should progressives and socialists care about bullying?

Bullying is about the abuse of power, and it violates human rights to safety, dignity and sense of belonging. It is a public health problem. A national bullying prevention strategy would ensure that all Canadian children grow up in environments that are inclusive, equitable and respectful, so that they can become engaged and healthy citizens. 

Tell me a bit more about the gendered aspect of bulliying.

Compared to boys, girls report lower levels of bullying others, and higher levels of being bullied, both face-to-face and online. The content of bullying directed to girls often reflects misogynistic themes and female stereotypes -- girls and young women are "slut-shamed" and so on and so forth, and their appearance and in particular their weight is also a frequent focus of bullying.  

Relate bullying to homophobia.

I have been told by many young boys that they thought "gay" meant bad or "uncool" before they learned the real meaning of the term. Of course, this sets the stage for prejudice and homophobia.  Boys who don't fit hetero-typical stereotypes are bullied by other boys who have not learned to respect human rights and diversity.

LGBTQ students have experienced appallingly high levels of bullying, including physical assault and verbal harassment. In a recent Canadian study commissioned by Egale Canada, LGBTQ students reported they were verbally harassed by teachers as well as peers. An encouraging finding was that LGBTQ students from schools with specific anti-homophobia policies reported significantly less bullying than their peers who attended schools without such enlightened policies. This shows the importance of the institutional response. 

Why is "bullying" under attack right now? Is it an unholy alliance of social conservatism and neoliberals who want to cut government programmes?

In recent years we have seen too many young people take their own lives as a result of relentless bullying, and these tragedies touch people. The media picks up on this, but people go in different directions trying to make sense of what has happened. To some people, the answer is to label, vilify and punish students who bully, but there is no evidence that this kind of approach helps in the absence of concerted and sustains efforts to develop positive relationship capacity in our children and youth.

We have to remember that youth make mistakes, and we need to honour mistakes and use mistakes as meaningful and relevant life lessons. In fact, bullying prevention programs do cost money to develop, evaluate, implement and sustain. This is exactly what we must do in order to create a healthy society.   

How would you reply to recent critiques of media coverage of Amanda Todd's suicide, critiques that dismiss the concept of "bullying" and make the claim that "bullying" isn't specific enough to account for the gendered and sexual harassment oriented treatment meted out to Todd before the tragedy.

I would remind people that bullying is an umbrella term used for aggression used from a position of power, and that what Amanda Todd suffered, based on media accounts, was relentless verbal bullying (or harassment) both face-to-face and online, as well as physical bullying and social exclusion and shunning. It had gone on for years. It was humiliating and traumatizing.

We don't feel it is sanitizing what Amanda endured to label it bullying, nor do we feel that the use of the term bullying obfuscates misogyny, gender based violence, homophobia or racism.  Instead, it provides a focus that enables us to develop and implement evidence based bullying prevention programs.  


Jordy Cummings is a writer and PhD candidate at York University, and is active in the labour and social movements in Toronto.

Dr. Joanne Cummings is Knowledge Mobilization Director for Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence, or PREVNet, a network of Canadian researchers and national youth serving organizations, and Canada's authority on evidence-based bullying prevention resources and tools.   


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