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Stop accepting bullying as just a sad fact of life

Now we appreciate how damaging it is, we need to get our act together and outlaw it, writes Carol Hunt

It's not true that Irish children are somehow "crueller" than children in other countries, despite what co-founder of controversial website ask.fm Mark Terebin has asserted. Our kids are neither more nor less kind than those of other jurisdictions. Bullying has been around for centuries, and many of us, adults and children alike, have bullied or been bullied to varying degrees. Sometimes it's viewed as part and parcel of growing up; nasty but inevitable. Sticks and stones and all that ... But just because something has always occurred is no excuse for tolerating its existence, or indeed continuance.

For those who say that bullying is a sad fact of life, I argue that corporal punishment used to be the norm, particularly in the "education" of children. Wife-beating was tolerated as a fact of life. Driving home drunk after an evening in the pub didn't raise an eyebrow in many quarters. But gradually we realised the awful consequences of such behaviours and decided society needed new values. Now we need to encourage a behavioural change regarding our attitudes towards bullying, on and offline. We can do it, but everyone needs to play a part.

Firstly, in many cases, the law can give weight to a society's need to change for the better. Kids now insist that their parents "belt-up" when they get into a car -- it's the law isn't it? A barman has the authority to deny alcohol to a customer he knows will drive home.

Though we may argue over the means of policing such laws -- or proposed laws, smoking in cars with children for instance -- the fact that they exist means that society has made a statement that such behaviour is not acceptable.

There's been much discussion of applying the criminal law to bullying in order to send a clear message that it will not be tolerated. It's happened in other jurisdictions. Two weeks ago in Ontario, Canada, eight schoolgirls were arrested and charged with criminal harassment after it was alleged a classmate had been bullied, physically, verbally and on the internet. A member of the school board explained that procedures had been put in place and strictly followed to show that "bullying is not tolerated. There are consequences."

Earlier this year, the state of Massachusetts passed a comprehensive anti-bullying law in the wake of the death of Irish schoolgirl Phoebe Prince. The Massachusetts Bill requires school staff to report bullying,

mandates training for teachers on prevention, and calls for instruction on heading off bullying for every student as part of the curriculum.

In Ireland, we are rather better at the rhetoric of child protection than its actual implementation but we do have legislation which could be used to tackle bullies; both on and offline. For instance, Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 prohibits the harassment of a person "by any means" by "persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with him or her".

So first up we need to tell our children that if they engage in bullying -- be it in the schoolyard or "anonymously" on the internet -- they are breaking a very specific law. And perhaps, in the more extreme cases, there will need to be criminal convictions if we are to demonstrate that bullying is a very serious matter -- not just a trivial little dispute between adolescents or children.

Of course, any parent of a child who is a victim of bullying will argue that their case is extreme and in some cases children who bully others are experiencing their own problems at home or elsewhere and need support rather than censure. However, the fact that bullying and harassment are against the law has to mean something -- otherwise we're sending duplicitous messages to our children about the consequences of their actions.

Secondly, mandatory procedures for tackling bullying in schools and youth groups need to be introduced as soon as possible. Currently there are rules regarding bullying between students at primary and post primary schools and these are set down in guidelines (but not law) by the Department of Education and Skills. But as Monica Monahan, president of the National Anti-Bullying Coalition, said last week: "At the moment, there's no single model for schools to follow so they're at sea. If these are implemented [mandatory structures] it'll save lives".

Dr Mona Moore, founder and director of the Anti-Bullying Research Centre at Trinity College, is also advocating the introduction of legislation compelling schools to have strong anti-bullying codes. She said: "If schools can't get their act together to address the fact this is a serious and growing health issue for young people and one that impacts on their ability to learn, I would not be afraid of legislation."

Thirdly, we need to encourage bystanders -- those who see what is going on, who know that children are being deliberately hurt -- to be upstanding members of society and report suspicions of bullying, of intimidation and harassment.

Child psychologist David Coleman asserted last week that about 10,000 children in Ireland are afraid to go to school in the mornings because they are being tormented by bullies. This isn't happening in a vacuum. People -- children -- need to be encouraged to speak out and defend others from bullying.

Ultimately though, the first line of defence against bullying has to come from the home. Parents have to repeatedly, through words and actions, show their children that harassment, abuse or even name-calling of others in unacceptable.

Kids need to be taught that words hurt. And that they are accountable for their behaviour to others. Parents also need to be able to spot the danger signs that may mean their child is a victim of bullies -- again, on and offline.

This means that parents have a huge responsibility to get to grips with social media in order to help their children navigate its dangers. While calling for the banning of certain websites is certainly understandable, it is not an answer to the problem of bullying and harassment online. Social media is here to stay and while pressure should be put on social media sites to monitor offensive communications, our children will still need to know how to deal with online bullying.

We as parents also need to check our kids' text messages, befriend them on Facebook, discuss what is suitable online behaviour with them. We need to be nosy, we need to be interested and we need to listen. We have to get to a place where we can demonstrate to our children, with confidence, that the society they live in does not tolerate bullying of any description. We're not nearly there yet.

Sunday Independent