Adult reactions to bullying can do more harm than good

Professor Marilyn Campbell of the Queensland University of Technology is a leading expert on bullying, and a member of the Australian Universities Anti-Bullying Research Alliance. She says that both past and present approaches to bullying have often been ineffective.

"The most general advice to young people who were bullied used to be ignore it and walk away," Campbell says. 

"With the knowledge of the often devastating harm that bullying can cause we have changed our advice to say to the bullied student to tell an adult. In a school context that is usually a teacher."

"However, bullying in schools is not significantly decreasing. Perhaps we are not responding to young people in the most effective way."

"Instead of listening and hearing what the young person wants us to do we usually investigate and punish.

"This often brings more humiliation to the bullied student because of the lack of confidentiality and sometimes, if the bullying is severe, more retaliation, increasing the bullying."


Tailor bullying responses to individual students and communities

Associate Professor Barbara Spears of the University of South Australia, the Chair of the Australian Universities Anti-Bullying Research Alliance, agrees that it is essential to listen to young people when formulating responses to bullying, and to tailor responses accordingly.

"For some time we have been suggesting that a whole school approach is required to deal with bullying, and the evidence suggests that this does help to reduce bullying, but it is not the complete story," Spears says.

"We also need to have differentiated, tiered intervention and prevention strategies: some universal information for everyone, as well as targeted and specific approaches that are tailored to the needs of particular students in that community, whether they are perpetrating or experiencing victimisation, or standing by while it happens."

"As schools also reflect the communities around them, it is important that all aspects of each community work together to prevent bullying and support those who have been victimised.

"Bullying is everyone’s problem, not just a school’s. We must listen to our young people and do better to model alternative solutions to bullying, aggression and violence."


Interventions to address bullying

Professor Phillip Slee of Flinders University is likewise a leading expert on bullying, and a member of the Australian Universities Anti-Bullying Research Alliance, together with Professor Campbell and Dr Spears.

He noted that bullying is a public health issue impacting on everyone and detracting from the social capital of the community.

“Bullying prevention is a whole of community matter – not just a matter for schools,” Slee says.

“Some groups are particularly vulnerable, such as children on the autistic spectrum, those who are LGBTQI, and those with special educational needs and disabilities.”

He emphasised, also, that bullying has an economic cost to the community, and that effective interventions need to be promoted.

However, he said it was crucial that interventions proceed from a strong evidence base; while some work, others can do more harm than good.

As such, he suggested that a strong evidence base for interventions must be established before they are widely promoted.