Is the anti-bullying message getting through?

Despite all the high profile media campaigns, government programs and school initiatives addressing bullying, tragic stories continue to emerge about teenagers continuing to suffer. Much government and schoolboard attention is being devoted to delivering an anti-bullying strategy, but how effective is the message?

Saskatchewan teen Todd Loik killed himself after being tormented by schoolmates

A North Battleford, Sask., mother says her teenage son Todd Loik took his life after years of being tormented by bullies. (Courtesy of Kim Loik)

Despite all the high profile media campaigns, government programs and school initiatives launched to address youth bullying, tragic stories continue to emerge about teenagers continuing to suffer.

This week, the mother of 15-year-old Saskatchewan teen Todd Loik, said her son —​ just like Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, Jamie Hubley and Mitchell Wilson — killed himself after years of being tormented by his schoolmates.

It was yet another story where bullying looks to have played some role in the suicide of a young teen. But despite the attention governments and school boards are devoting  to developing an anti-bullying strategy, questions remain about how effective is the message, and is it reaching its target audience?

"I guess it’s not effective enough if young people are being tormented," said Debra Pepler, a York University psychology professor who helped establish PREVNet — Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network. 

The issue, however, has certainly gotten its fair share of media attention.

Celebrities have taken part in multimedia anti-bullying campaigns, like the It Gets Better pledge that reached out to gay, lesbian, transgender and other bullied teens. And schools and provinces have also launched initiatives. 

Ontario passed the Accepting Schools Act last year, while B.C. announced its 10-point Expect Respect And a Safe Education (ERASE) bullying strategy. And this year,  Nova Scotia implemented its new Cyber-Safety Act, aimed at protecting victims and holding bullies responsible.

Meanwhile, in June, the prime minister’s wife Laureen Harper joined then heritage minister James Moore and Ottawa city councillor Allan Hubley, whose son killed himself after being bullied, to announce $250,000 in funding for the training of 2,400 young people to deliver anti-bullying workshops in their communities and to reach out to others.

Shelley Hymel, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia, noted that the issue has become a worldwide concern, and that in some countries progress has been made. Schools that have instituted anti-bullying policies have shown a 20 per cent reduction in the behaviour, she said.

Reductions 'pretty small'

However, she added, "I think the reductions we’re talking about, although in the right direction, they’re still pretty darn small. Twenty per cent, that means there’s 80 per cent still going on. And there are a lot of schools who don’t have this as a priority," she told CBC News. "So I think there’s still a lot of work to do."

Hymel added that attitudes are evolving for the better on how to approach the problem. Schools and researchers are now taking a much broader view of the issue, and changing many long-held assumptions that include,  for example, that bullying is only carried on by socially incompetent kids.

Rehtaeh Parsons,17, died in April following a suicide attempt. Her family said she had been tormented at school for over a year by lewd comments and photos taken of her, and texted to her classmates. (Facebook)

"One of the big approaches that’s happening, and this is kind of worldwide, is getting at peer observers," she said, adding that two or three kids witness every incident.

"We’re trying to get kids to move from bystanders to 'upstanders.' Getting the kids involved,  you’re trying to change the climate of the school, to where the culture basically says ‘this is not OK.'"

Hymel said they’ve been collecting bullying-related data at B.C schools over the last four years. 

At one school, where the issue became a priority among staff, they initially saw no reductions in bullying.

"But now after four years we’re seeing real significant reductions in kids' reports of bullying and victimization. So it takes a long time to change the culture of a school," she said.

Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in children’s mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa, cautioned that the media is creating a perception of a bullying crisis that really isn’t there, and that research suggests bullying is no worse than it has ever been.

She also said it may still be too soon to measure the effectiveness of some of the recent anti-bullying strategies.

But some of the problems with current programs, she said, is this one-size-fits-all type of mentality. Every school will get the same anti-bullying program without taking into consideration the different demographics and culture of the facility.

"I think what happens is that we have these policy programs that worked in one school, and then we try to roll them out to other schools and they don’t work."

There's also more to dealing with bullying than just addressing the problem at school, Pepler said.

"We’ve put it at the door of the school and said you solve it. And it’s not a school problem. It’s a problem at home, it’s a problem at school, it’s a problem with peer groups, it’s a problem in the community, it’s a problem everywhere we aggregate children and youth.

It’s not a problem that schools can solve on their own.”

Too often, people are looking for a simple fix or single program that fixes all, Hymel said.

"And the one thing we figured out in 40 years of research in this area is that there's no simple solution and there's no single reason why kids bully.

"There's lots of reason why kids bully and we have to treat each one differently.”


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