The Current

Youth see bullying as 'paying off for some people' in today's world, says expert

Teenage bullying and violence has made headlines in recent weeks. One expert says we should accept that if people can be kind, they also have the capacity to be cruel.

Recent cases of abuse highlight pervasive bullying

Cruel behaviour can often lead to rewards for children, even if it harms the other children around them, according to an expert in mental health in schools. (Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)
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Young people looking at today's world could get the impression that being cruel brings rewards, according to a professor who studies anti-bullying strategies.

"You only have to look south of the border to get a really good example of how somebody can be really mean but really popular at the same time," said Tony Volk, professor in child and youth studies at Brock University in Ontario, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump.

"It is not at all surprising that these youth who are growing up, who are intelligent, functional human beings, look around them and say: 'Yeah this is really paying off for some people, maybe I should do the same thing,'" he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

If we can accept that people have a capacity for kindness, we should also accept that everybody has a capacity for cruelty.- Tracy  Vaillancourt

Canada has recently seen its share of bullying and allegations of violence related to bullying.

Earlier this month, a student with cerebral palsy was made to lie face down in a shallow stream in Glace Bay, N.S., while other students used him as a human bridge. Those students apologized after a video of the incident attracted attention online.

In Toronto, police have charged six students in an alleged gang sexual assault on another pupil at St. Michael's College School. The alleged attack was also captured on camera and shared on social media.

A former St. Michael's College School student recounts his experience getting bullied and says hazing is part of the school's culture. CBC's Natalie Nanowski reports. 4:12

The incidents show just how pervasive bullying is in our society, said Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada research chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa.

Anti-bullying programs have had some success, she said, but she believes that in the right context, any child has the potential to engage in aggressive behaviour.

"If we can accept that people have a capacity for kindness, we should also accept that everybody has a capacity for cruelty," she said.

"I was at a school recently where I heard one homophobic slur after the other, and then you go to another school where LGBQT students are embraced and well-received."

When cruel behaviour brings a reward, such as popularity or status, "it's pretty difficult to dissuade somebody to give up their source of power," she said.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by The Current's Alison Masemann and Cameron Perrier.