Page 715 - Week 03 - Tuesday, 8 March 2005

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Whether there are more bullying and bullies now than, say, 20 or 30 years ago is a moot point. There are those who claim that people are simply more thin-skinned these days, seeking to turn themselves into victims at the drop of a hat, that the slings and arrows of everyday life have become medicalised and we have fallen into the temptation of seeing ourselves as victims, no matter how trivial the circumstances. That is what some people might think.

Some people might think that the cure to that is simply to pull yourself together, to grow up and realise that life is not meant to be a bed of roses, that what is needed is “tough love”. That is part of the world view of, for instance, people ranging from Janet Albrechtsen to the former leader of the federal Labor Party. Even if we accept this argument in general, it remains the case that children are being raised in significantly different conditions from those in which their parents and their grandparents were brought up.

Firstly, family structures have altered dramatically. More women are in the work force. There are more single parents, especially single mothers. There is a higher rate of divorce. Working hours are significantly longer and family life in general is far more flexible and unstable, depending upon your perspective.

In itself, that has a dramatic impact on the psychological condition and social outlook of young children. The very diversity of family types, reinforced by increasingly noticeable cultural differences, tends to increase the sense of difference among schoolchildren. Difference, as we know, is a major cause of antagonism and aggression amongst children.

Secondly, technological change has greatly expanded the opportunities for bullying and the means by which it can be exercised. To take the obvious example—one that has come up in New South Wales just this week—mobile phones can now be used to send threatening or demeaning voice and text messages or to take embarrassing photos which can be circulated by various means. Such psychological bullying can cause far more damage than physical harassment. With the help of today’s technology, it can more easily become a great threat to children, and it is often done anonymously.

Thirdly, there are broader cultural pressures. Commentators of all political persuasions point to the deleterious effects of advertising aimed specifically at young people; to the increased sexualisation of youth, especially young girls; to the glorification of violence, whether on sports field or in video games; and to the emphasis on rights rather than responsibilities.

The upshot has been a dramatic increase in reported bullying. A survey last year by the University of South Australia revealed that 47 per cent of students saw physical bullying at least once a week, with 70 per cent witnessing verbal bullying. Some 34 per cent said that as bystanders they would ignore an incident, 6 per cent said that they would support the bullying, 40 per cent said that they would support the victim and 20 per cent—only 20 per cent—said that they would tell a teacher. We can see the results of these and similar developments in the growing prevalence of anxiety disorders, depression, obesity, substance misuse and other behavioural and psychological problems amongst young people.

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