“We believe all students have the right to be safe at school. Bullying and violence has no place in Australia,” Turnbull wrote.

In his plea, the Prime Minister called on more schools to take part in the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, on March 16.

“This is our chance to stand together. Together we can reduce the incidence of bullying, whether inside the school gate or online, and eliminate it wherever we can,” he said.

Perhaps the PM’s call to arms had an impact, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but almost two million students signed up to take part on the day, nearly double last year’s participation rate.

While this is no doubt an encouraging result, experts warn there is a long way to go towards addressing bullying in Australian schools.

Bullying Down Under: a snapshot

The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth’s five-year snapshot, released in February, shows Australia ranked in the bottom third of OECD countries on numerous issues that impact on mental health and wellbeing of students.

The nation ranked 40th out of 49 OECD countries on bullying and 26th out of 34 on feelings of belonging in school.

Dr Marilyn Campbell, a leading authority on bullying and cyberbullying, and a member of the Australian Universities Antibullying Research Alliance, says knee-jerk reactions to bullying are counter-productive.

“Bullying is a complex social relationship problem which is deeply embedded in our society,” she says in a statement.

“It is a community issue with no single, simple, quick-fix solution: if there was we would have found it by now.

“While it is laudable that the Prime Minister is contributing to the National Day of Action on March 16th, highlighting the issue, the best way to address bullying in schools must take a longer term, multi-tiered approach.”

“One day can highlight the issue but it won’t solve the problem,” she said. Indeed those who work in the specialised field of bullying research know that it’s a slow process to try and effect change in the area.

Professor Phillip Slee, director of the Student Wellbeing & Prevention of Violence Research Centre at Flinders University in Adelaide has been conducting bullying research for more than 28 years.

He says over that time, awareness of the issue has definitely increased. Yet greater awareness hasn’t necessarily led to a significant reduction in bullying behaviour.

“The level of bullying, depending on the type, has changed a little,” he says. “[For instance] the physical, verbal and social/psychological bullying, there’s small evidence that it’s actually decreasing.

“But there is also some evidence that cyberbullying is increasing. So ... there’s some evidence that there’s reduction in some types of bullying, but there’s increase in others,” Slee says.

Slee has worked with schools all over the world to reduce bullying, and an intervention package called the PEACE Pack he developed with colleagues, has been rolled out in schools across Italy, Greece, Malta and Japan, as well as Australia.

Presently, he is undertaking a number of international research projects on the topic of school violence with researchers from Japan, Korea, China, Canada, England and the US.

Based on data he has collected from 25,000 to 30,000 students all over Australia, Slee says that on average, about one in five students say they are bullied once a week or more often.

Any bullying which occurs at least once a week is labelled ‘serious’, according to research.

So Slee says in Australia, the proportion of students affected by serious bullying works out to be around 18 to 20 per cent.

“In the Baltic countries, they have a much higher rate, so that’s sitting at around about 35 to 40 per cent,” he says.

“And if you go to some of the Scandanavian countries like Finland and Norway it’s sitting at about 5 per cent.

“So Australia is about the same as Canada and maybe a little lower than the United States.”

Slee admits it is complex to try and explain how the Scandinavian countries achieve such a low rate of bullying, but he says their school setting and culture seems to involve a great deal more awareness of the issue.

“They seem to be more sensitive to it and as part of their general approach to teaching, the teachers are similarly aware and sensitive to it and so tend to address it with the counselling and restitution procedures in place,” he says.

Bullying in the digital age

As we all find ourselves living more and more of our lives in the digital space, it’s no wonder bullying is playing out more online.

Julie Inman Grant has been Australia’s eSafety Commissioner since January 2017 and over that time, has identified some clear trends in the concerning practice of cyberbullying.

“We know, based on our research and the reports we get in from young people around cyberbullying, that one out of five young Australians are cyberbullied,” she reveals.

“It’s often an extension of what’s happening in the schoolyard. The average age is about 14, and girls are bullied more often than boys, although that gap is starting to close.”

Inman Grant notes there’s been  an increase in students creating fake Instagram accounts, designed to damage a classmate’s reputation, as well as more incidences of ‘sextortion’.

While any form of bullying can have devastating effects on children, cyberbullying by its very nature, presents some unique dangers.

“Sometimes cyberbullying can be overt, sometimes it’s more covert or low-grade, and it can be persistent and happen over time,” Inman Grant says.

“The other thing that makes it persistent and pretty toxic to young people is that the bullying doesn’t stop at the school gate, it can follow the child onto their device, into their pocket and into their homes and bedrooms.

“And when you think about social exclusion and how that might happen online, when there’s an audience of tens or hundreds of people, that can amplify a young person’s humiliation.

“So it does have a way of really extending the anxiety, the fear, there’s certainly low self-esteem, it can result in young people being withdrawn and avoiding social relationships, you can see declines in schoolwork, and that’s why the early intervention piece is really, really important,” she adds.

What we can do about bullying

According to Campbell, a common sense first step for schools would be to have an effective policy in place which looks at prevention first and foremost, and equips staff to deal with the management of any issues of bullying that would arise.

“Most of the research shows that policies and procedures in schools to try and reduce all forms of bullying aren’t working very well,” Campbell tells EducationHQ.

She puts this down to the fact that many schools’ anti-bullying policies are in fact procedures, and the two shouldn’t be confused.

“A policy is supposed to be a kind of framework that’s intended to determine the actions. And then procedures enact that policy,” Campbell explains.

She also says it’s important that everybody – students, staff and parents – contribute to the policy and agree on what the definition of bullying actually is.

Slee agrees and says it is particularly important to have buy-in from students when developing a policy to address their needs.

“The important thing is that the students have had a say in developing those policies, grievance procedures and practices,” he says.

“Because if you don’t get that buy-in by the students ... then their awareness of it, and their use of the policy and the grievance procedures, tends to be very low.”

On top of that, Slee stresses the importance of evidence-based programs that have a proven impact in reducing the level of bullying. His ‘PEACE pack’, the result of two years working together with teachers, students and parents, has seen some success.

“The PEACE pack is a framework built around the idea that schools, as part of their everyday business, can implement a program using that framework,” Slee explains.

“It actually comprises a booklet and discussion sheets that set out practical ideas because that’s what teachers wanted, they wanted practical ideas that they could use in their classroom ... so it’s used right across the age range, from K-12, really.”

Campbell can also vouch for the success of the program. “One school in Adelaide has reduced its bullying victimisation from about 18 per cent per annum to 3 per cent, using the PEACE program – but it took five years, demonstrating the consistent, concerted effort required,” she says in a statement.

As part of Inman Grant’s role, she has learned that the sooner cyberbullying content can be removed the better the result for the vicitm.

“When we’re made aware of [cyberbullying content] and we can get the content taken down (we ask the child’s permission) what works the best is when we get parents and the schools involved, we get to the root causes of the behaviour and once that content is down and parents and educators are working on the issues, a lot of the issues go away,” she says.

“That kind of service isn’t offered anywhere else in the world. We play an important role as an equaliser, as a safety net.”

Despite advocating on behalf of 700 children over the past two years, Inman Grant recognises the difficulty in encouraging victims of cyberbullying to come forward.

“We know that only 50 per cent of young people will even talk to an adult about any kind of bullying incident, let alone report to a social media site or a government agency,” she says.

“But we do need to encourage young people to support each other. “We’re actually getting ready to pilot a program ... which is a peerbased program where we’ll train peers to know what signs to look out for, to know what resources to go to, because we know that young people often go to young people for help.

“Now we don’t want to overburden young people, but we do want to help them be equipped to see the signs and to be able to direct their friends in a way that’s constructive and can get them help and early intervention.”

As far as adults go, Inman Grant says parents should be “the front line of defence”.

“If we’re handing over a digital device to a child, we need to be engaged in our kids’ online lives, we need to teach them the roles and responsibilities of how they should be using technology responsibly,” she says.

“We also need to keep the lines of conversation open with kids, and let them know that we will be there for them if something inappropriate or confronting happens to them.”

However, Inman Grant realises this isn’t going to happen in every household, and that schools are the “next catchment area”.

“And that’s why we believe this is becoming a societal issue, and we’re probably about ten years behind in terms of educating our children to the extent we need to.

“I mean we’re teaching technology regularly in the classroom, but we’re often not teaching about the ethics and the responsibilities...”

The eSafety Commissioner says it’s important for teachers to recognise the signs a student might be suffering from cyberbullying, such as marked differences in behaviour, excessive phone use or withdrawal from technology.

“From a philosophical level, I think teachers can encourage students to become upstanders rather than bystanders.

“And that goes back to that peer engagement and encouraging kids not to worry about being a dobber and a snitch when they see a mate in strife.

“To talk to a trusted adult, whether it’s a teacher, a counsellor, a principal, or even a parent,” she adds.

Inman Grant says she wants to arm teachers with the tools they need to be able to identify signs of cyberbullying and open lines of conversation with their students.

“We know that teachers often have to be all things to all people, and we don’t want to overburden them either.

“But if we can give them some tools to help them be more effective in terms of getting to the crux of an online issue that may be happening in their classroom, or across their school, then that means they can be freed up to focus on the teaching and learning which is what they’re fundamentally there to do.”

For more from Dr Marilyn Campbell on creating an effective anti-bullying policy in your school, check out the Term 1 edition of LeadershipEd, available via the educationhq hub