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Battling bullying in SA schools

Bullying in South Africa is rife and it has the potential to cause irreparable harm. These are the facts.

Bullying at a glance

There are various types of bullying, including:

  • Physical: Any unwanted physical contact between the bully and the victim – and one of the most easily identifiable forms.
  • Emotional: Any form of bullying that causes damage to a victim’s psyche or emotional wellbeing.
  • Verbal: Slanderous statements or accusations that cause the victim undue emotional distress.
  • Sexual: Bullying behaviour based on a person’s sexuality or gender. Austen says that it’s used as a weapon by both sexes – but is most often directed at girls.
  • Cyberbullying: The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) describes cyberbullying as the consistent harassment of a person (the victim) through social media, text messages, email and other messaging systems. It also includes using a school’s online resources or false online accounts to destroy a person’s online reputation.

Cyberbullying in the spotlight

  • 54% of children in South Africa are bullied
  • The most vulnerable age for cyberbullying is 8–12 years
  • 6% girls and 28.8% boys experience cyberbullying
  • Most common forms of bullying include mean comments, online rumours, sexual remarks

The situation at school

Bullying at schools seems to be on the rise in SA, with a University of the Western Cape report revealing that 41% of high school learners have experienced it. Dr Keith Ganasen, a psychiatrist at the Life Mental Health Unit at Life St Vincent’s, believes those statistics are probably an underestimate. 

‘In South Africa, there have not been enough studies done to determine the extent and nature of the various bullying behaviours, in different contexts and age groups,’ he says. ‘I frequently observe bullying to begin as a “harmless” behaviour, but then it escalates over time.’

Why do children bully others?

Clinical psychologist Monica Austen, who is based at the Life Mental Health Unit at Life Brackenview, says that bullying needs to be understood from a developmental, social and educational perspective. ‘It is a highly varied form of aggression where there is systematic use and abuse of power,’ she explains. ‘It can also include social or relational forms of bullying in which a victim is excluded by peers or subjected to humiliation. Bullying can occur face-to-face or indirectly through digital media and is observed across gender, race, ethnicity and socio-economic status.’

The consequences of bullying

Social worker Berinise Ekwelibe, who is based at the Life Mental Health Unit at Life Riverfield Lodge, says that bullying is prevalent at both primary and high schools, with social groups forming early. Monica says that bullied students:

  • Experience higher rates of anxiety and depression (which can persist into adulthood)
  • Experience physical-health and social-adjustment problems (which can persist into adulthood)
  • Become less engaged in school, and their marks decline

‘[However], learners engaging in bullying are also at an elevated risk for poor school adjustment and delinquency, as well as increased risk for criminal behaviour and social maladjustment in adulthood,’ Monica adds.

Dr Ganasen says that some research shows that people who bully are themselves experiencing personal stress or some form of psychological trauma, with home stressors a common contributing factor. ‘A person who does the bullying often also has low self-esteem and targets another to feel better about themselves,’ he says.

Tackling the issues

Monica believes that attempts to tackle bullying should start with schools, which ‘need to revise their bullying and harassment policies to explicitly include all forms of harassment’, she says. ‘A lot of education needs to go into how to intervene and what to do, and how we can improve the school climate.’

Psychoeducation for the child should begin early and include parents and the school, says Dr Ganasen. He believes that teachers, school counsellors and employers must be aware of bullying as a common phenomenon and know what initial steps to take in order to address it early.

Helpful resources

Sources: Global Advisor Cyberbullying Study, 2018; Cyberbullying Research Center, 2015; Cyberbullying Research Center, 2018 

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.