Bullying and peer victimisation among adolescents are growing public health concerns that affect victims’ emotional well-being, and their social and academic functioning. Despite concerns about this public health epidemic in low- and middle-income countries, most prevalence, policy and intervention studies have been conducted in developed countries and economies. As far as Pakistan is concerned, there haven’t been any laws to combat the culture of bullying at schools and we only get information about it from self-reported cases of bullying, cyberbullying, adolescent suicides and news regarding their prevalence.
UNESCO Member States declared the first Thursday of November, the ‘International Day against Violence and Bullying at School Including Cyberbullying’, recognising that school-related violence in all its forms is an infringement of children and adolescents’ rights to education and to health and well-being. It calls upon Member States, UN partners, other relevant international and regional organisations, as well as civil society, including non-governmental organisations, individuals and other stakeholders to help promote, celebrate and facilitate the international day.
According to UNESCO, almost one in three students has been bullied by their peers at school at least once in a month and a similar proportion were affected by physical violence. School violence and bullying is mostly perpetrated by peers but, in some cases, by teachers and other school staff as well. Corporal punishment is still allowed in schools in 67 countries.
In February 2020, Islamabad High Court had suspended section 89 of Pakistan Penal Code in the capital territory and subsequently banned the practice of corporal punishment employed by teachers, parents and guardians in a bid to correct or punish the child’s conduct. However, it should have been implemented all over Pakistan to avoid young adults succumbing to deteriorating mental health and fear of being bullied by their peers, teachers and even parents.
There are significant negative effects from the violence, including on academic achievement, mental health, and quality of life in general. Children who are frequently bullied are nearly three times more likely to feel like an outsider at school and more than twice as likely to miss school as those who are not frequently bullied. They have worse educational outcomes than their peers and are also more likely to leave formal education after finishing secondary school.
“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behaviour that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behaviour is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have lasting problems or impacts. On the other hand, cyberbullying is a lot more different and difficult to comprehend from bullying. The younger generation is impacted a lot more because of it. For instance, kids who make Instagram profiles, which are usually public, are easily bullied by individuals who first pretend to be their fake friends and then use their pictures or videos to harass them,” explains Sana Akbar, a Karachi-based Child Psychologist/Psychotherapist.
Bullying has many kinds including verbal and social. Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things; teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, threatening to cause harm. Social bullying basically includes leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumours about someone and embarrassing someone in public. Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions and involves, hitting/kicking/pinching, spitting, tripping/pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things and making mean or rude hand gestures.
While answering how to detect the signs of bullying in a child, the psychologist informs, “It has a big mental and emotional impact – you feel unaccepted, isolated, angry, and withdrawn. You’re always wondering how you can do better and how you can escape a bully’s notice. You’re also stunted because of the constant tension and you forego making certain friendships or miss out on taking certain chances that could actually help your development. The physical health consequences of bullying can be immediate, such as physical injury, or they can involve long-term effects, such as headaches, sleep disturbances, or somatisation.”
17-year-old Aliyah (the name has been concealed to protect identity) has coped up from being bullied at school and has come out stronger, but things weren’t as easy as they seem today for her. “I have been a very antisocial girl throughout my school life. I never had many friends and most of them didn’t last very long because I was told that I am annoying, irritating, ugly and whatnot. I was bullied by my batchmates from a very young age. I was called names, people used to call me mentally disturbed and I was told to get therapy. Every time I used to try to be friends with anyone, people used to walk away. Also, I was bullied in school through words and was treated like an alien that everyone stayed away from. I was even bullied on social media by the same people and this went on for years; people commenting weird stuff on my pictures or me getting messages from fake accounts telling me to stop coming to school. Most of my classmates didn’t like me and I always kept on trying to change myself for everyone to accept me,” laments the teenager.
“Bullying impacted me in many ways; I started getting hyper, got irritated by everything around and even though I think I was a bit normal earlier, it changed me mentally. I used to fight with everyone in school. My teachers used to be concerned for me and I even started seeing a councillor. I am proud of myself for what I am today because it’s me alone who didn’t give up and made through all those hard times and be here today… stronger and independent,” recalls Aliyah.
When you are bullied, it often becomes difficult to share it with parents, teachers or even friends. There is some kind of complex within and the victim blames him/herself for whatever is happening to them. “For the early years I didn’t tell anyone. As time passed and things got worse, people started noticing a behavioural change in me. My teachers also took notice and informed the principal. Soon after, the management called my parents and my mom was told about everything. From then on, I used to tell everything to my mother who helped me attend my sessions and become better. Nothing should have bothered me; I shouldn’t have cared about what people think of me unless they were my parents or my siblings. No one else really ever mattered. The best lesson I learnt was that my mom is my best friend I would ever need,” expresses Aliyah.
25-year-old Islamabad-based activist cum artist, Minhaj ul Arifeen reminisces his cadet college days when he was a teenager and shares his story… “I was bullied in school for various reasons. a) I was a Pashtun, b) I had Sinusitis and my nose would flow or stay clogged and I would be mostly having a headache. Third, I came from a lower-middle-class background and I mostly had no pocket money. Also, I have been bullied online for my activism,” elucidates Minhaj. “Bullying in school alienated me from rest of the students. I turned into a lonely, radical religious person confined to library and mosque. I had no friends as such and bullying made me quieter. I never shared it with anyone until very recently. I didn't share a friendly connection with anyone either who I could share this with. My only retreat was my art and reading,” he continues.
After parents, adolescents are often very close to their teachers. Sadly, these young and fragile minds don’t even anticipate going to their teachers and share what they are dealing with. Sabah Saeed, a Karachi-based middle school teacher, comments on how the young adults could be dealt with in such situations if a teacher witnesses them being bullied. “There is an unannounced zero tolerance policy in every school in today’s world, but since it’s not discussed at a large scale, students who don't mean harm even end up bullying their friends thinking of it as a joke. Therefore, dealing doesn't remain the only solution, you have to understand, address and reflect. It takes time and not all students learn a lot out of it but that's a start for some at least,” shares Sabah.
While commenting on the current situation of bullying at schools, Sabah apprises, “Children are not taught the importance of mental health at schools rigorously and most households don't like talking about stuff like this either. Therefore, no one really knows how and when they are impacting the other person’s wellbeing. I have, on many occasions, witnessed students doing from name-calling to catcalling to body shaming to believing that they're merely joking. But upon the closer look, I have often seen the child on the receiver’s end smile and ignore but try to hide away immediately and lose away from the crowd because he or she feels ridiculed.”
When asked what can parents and teachers do to monitor and council students, she suggests, “They can talk about ways to deal with such bullies. And how they are not necessarily only rude but they could also be nice and kind at first and lure the kids. Therefore, running away is not the option for teachers and parents. To know your boundaries and giving them the safe space to always come back and talk to you is the best way possible.”
Children may not always be vocal about being bullied. Signs include: ripped clothing, hesitation about going to school, decreased appetite, nightmares, crying, or general depression and anxiety. If you discover your child is being bullied, don’t tell them to ‘let it go’ or ‘suck it up’. Instead, have open-ended conversations where you can learn what is really going on at school so that you can take the appropriate steps to rectify the situation. Lahore-based Ceramist / Freelance Writer, Saira Khan, who is a mother of two boys, talks about how she picks up the signs if her child is bullied at school and how she handles it. “I usually know if my son is being bullied at school or online by his facial expressions because if he is worried, the tension on his face is quite visible. Also, when something wrong is happening at school, he becomes quite disturbed and is more sensitive towards the tiniest of things,” she states.
Saira has a different approach of dealing with bullies. Through empathising and communication, she thinks that parents can effectively deal with it. “I usually make my son sit down and try to communicate with him. I take a different approach by knowing if the bully is unhappy at home or is traumatised by his parents or is unloved and feels that this sort of behaviour will make him feel superior to others, as it is how most bullies deal with their own insecurities by repetitively bullying others. Through this, I am also able to discuss it with the parents of the bullies and work collectively with them to save our children from this and better their mental and physical health,” concludes Saira.
Until something can be done on an administrative level, work with your child to handle bullying without being crushed or defeated. Practice scenarios at home where your child learns how to ignore a bully and/or develop assertive strategies for coping with bullying. Educate your children and yourself about cyberbullying and teach your children not to respond or forward threatening emails. ‘Friend’ your child on Facebook or Instagram and set up proper filters on your child’s computer. If you decide to give your child a cell phone think carefully before allowing them to have a camera option. Let them know you will be monitoring their text messages. Parents should report bullying to the school, and follow up with a letter that is copied to the school superintendent if their initial inquiry receives no response.
Educate your children about bullying. It is possible that your child is having trouble reading social signs and does not know what they are doing is hurtful. Remind your child that bullying others can have legal consequences.
Children learn behaviour through their parents. Being exposed to aggressive behaviour or an overly strict environment at home makes kids more prone to bully at school. Parents/caregivers should model positive examples for their child in your relationships with other people and with them. Also, children with low self-esteem often bully to feel better about themselves. Even children who seem popular and well-liked can have mean tendencies. Mean behaviour should be addressed by parents and disciplined.