Thursday 17 October 2019

Body image is main source of bullying

A new online survey tool allows second-level schools to self-assess around issues of inclusivity and bullying - and get instant results, writes Katherine Donnelly

A clip from the Largy College students’ short film When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny
A clip from the Largy College students’ short film When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

How do schools get a handle on bullying or how much their students feel that they 'belong'? If a school doesn't know what is going on, it is hard to tackle it.

Bullying is not new, but in an era when so much of it happens online and, therefore, is virtually invisible, identifying and dealing with it has become even more problematic.

A new report confirms what many already suspect - that teenagers, regardless of gender, are reluctant to report incidents of bullying to school staff.

So, how is a school supposed to know the extent of it among their pupils? And on to what does the bully latch to use as a stick against his or her target? Gender? Sexuality? Ethnicity? Class? Religion? Body image?

Research for this report found relatively low levels of physical bullying or sexual harassment. Where it happened, physical harassment was more prevalent in the all-boys' school.

What did surprise was that teen victims of bullying were predominantly taunted about their weight or body image. It could take the form of hurtful names, mean rumour spreading or being excluded.

Teachers attributed this to increased image awareness created by social media.

The report, called 'Taking the Temperature', was conducted by the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre (ABC) at Dublin City University (DCU).

The findings are based on research among 418 students aged 12-17 in second, fourth and fifth years in three schools: a girls' Catholic school in an affluent Dublin suburb, a boys' Catholic school in a socially mixed suburban village and a co-educational community college in a relatively affluent suburb. The purpose was to evaluate how safe and included students felt in school and, if there were issues around bullying and exclusion, what was at the root of them.

While there was a certain consistency in the findings, there were some significant differences between the various types of schools.

The report authors advise that it does not necessarily follow that the findings are representative of these types of schools - they say that a more statistically significant sample would be required to draw conclusions that could be applied more generally. But they do offer some useful clues.

The thinking behind the study was to develop a tool that all second-level schools could use to survey students and staff to gauge the positivity of their school climate and culture in relation to attitudes towards difference and diversity. There was a specific focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identity. It was envisaged that a survey tool would be particularly useful in preventing and dealing with homophobic and transphobic bullying. The research was a collaboration with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN).

The study was carried out in 2016 and body weight repeatedly emerged as the main factor in bullying.

Dr Debbie Ging, of DCU's School of Communications and author of the report, says while other indicators, such as ethnicity and sexuality, were still very significant factors in bullying behaviour, the "prevalence of body size-based bullying surprised us, in both the boys' and the girls' schools".

For instance, the most common reason students gave for feeling 'unsafe' in school was to do with body size/weight. Apart from the pejorative use of the word 'gay', the most frequently heard negative remarks were about other students' size or body weight.

In the year prior to the survey, one in three students (33pc) said they had been called hurtful names or threatened at school, more so in boys' schools. Across all three school types, this was rarely to do with sexual orientation, gender or disability and most frequently attributed to body type/size.

The spread of mean rumours or lies was found to be most common in the girls' school with 31pc of students reporting that someone had done it to them, compared with 28pc in the boys' school and 22pc in the mixed school.

Again, body type was the most frequently cited reason for this.

Some 47pc of students in the girls' school felt excluded or 'left out on purpose' by other students, compared with 38pc in the boys' school and 22pc in the mixed school. Body image was the most frequently cited reason for this type of bullying.

In relation to inclusivity for LGBT students, the research found that only a small number of participants in the all-boys' school (7.5pc) felt their school was 'very accepting' of LGBT people, compared with 19pc in the all-girls' school and 39pc in the mixed school.

Ging says the schools were surprised by a lot of what the surveys revealed, highlighting the need for ongoing self-assessment instruments to improve the equality and inclusion climate.

Based on the feedback, the ABC received funding from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to build an automated survey tool for schools, which generates immediate results for teachers.

It can be used to evaluate the extent to which students experience belonging, inclusion and equality or discomfort, exclusion and inequality along lines of ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, religion, social class, physical appearance and disability.

Ging worked on the survey tool in collaboration with Dr Mark Roantree of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics. It is available through the DCU ABC at

Irish Independent

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