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Bystanders must join fight against bullying (2011)

Commission – General


The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.

Bystanders must join fight against bullying

Author: By Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

Published in The Newcastle Herald, Wednesday, 23 March 2011, p. 11.

It's not just up to authority figures to act, writes Elizabeth Broderick.

"GO, Casey. You're my hero!''

''The time comes when you just can't take it any more and you just have to fight fire with fire. Good on you."

These are familiar and understandable responses to the sort of bullying retaliation incident we saw go viral on YouTube and on TV news last week.

A great many people echoed these sentiments on blogs, social networking sites, radio talkback and in letters to the editor around Australia and the world after they saw a schoolboy fight back against his aggressor after years of schoolyard bullying.

Then, of course, there are the experts warning that victims should not physically fight back against their tormentors; that violence is bad and we should not fight violence with violence.

All of which is irrefutable.

And of course, in this case, both the victim and tormentor were suspended from school.

There is no simple solution to the issue of bullying.

The real issue in the case we saw play out on our television, computer and mobile phone screens last week was not that of right or wrong, victim or perpetrator, but that the situation had been allowed to get that far – without intervention – until the young victim felt he had only one option.

And that is, unfortunately, a very common scenario when it comes to dealing with bullying.

A recent Australian study estimated that 27 per cent of students in years 4 to 9 are bullied at least every few weeks and that between seven and 10 per cent are cyber-bullied.

The speed with which the mobile- phone footage of the incident made its way from a small Sydney school to the infinite audience of cyberspace was staggering. It has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people and elicited many Facebook responses in support of the victim.

Not only does that shockingly illustrate just how huge and unprecedented the reach of such incidents can be in cyberspace, and hence into the broader community, it provides us with a graphic insight into the impact of bullying when it goes online.

Can you imagine the horror, humiliation and helplessness you would feel if you were being bullied in cyberspace for all to see? I can well understand that it would feel beyond reputation-destroying, particularly for a teenager or pre-teen.

With its potentially infinite audience and the high likelihood that content will remain in cyberspace permanently, cyber- bullying poses particular harm to a young person's mental and physical health.

It is well documented that victims of bullying can experience significant social isolation and feel unsafe. Bullying can lead to emotional and physical harm, loss of self-esteem, feelings of shame and anxiety, and concentration and learning difficulties. Tragically, suicide is at the extreme end of these consequences.

So how and why do we manage to let it get this far?

The footage in question shows us one thing that a great many bullying incidents have in common – in both the physical and cyber worlds.

That is, people standing around watching, sometimes even egging on the behaviour. It is no different online, where people are able to comment and make other contributions.

Though some of these people are in effect participants in the bullying, others are guaranteed to feel uncomfortable about the events as they unfold.

And this is where responsibility comes in. It is not only teachers and other authority figures that should be charged with the responsibility to intervene and take steps to stop bullying and prevent its escalation. These ''bystanders'', who disapprove of the torment – in the physical world and online – must feel safe and empowered to take strong action as well.

Bullying does not just happen between a bully and their victim.

There is complicity in the role of the bystander, whether they support the bullying or feel powerless to prevent it.

If the bully realises their actions are unpopular with their audience, the impetus to continue is reduced.

But bystanders have to feel safe, supported and encouraged if they are to take preventative action.

That is the policy challenge whether in the arena of the schoolyard, the workplace, in government or in cyberspace.

If we are to stamp out bullying, we cannot simply leave it up to people in positions of authority. We are all in this together.

We must all take responsibility.

The consequences of bullying are simply too great. It is up to all of us to stop things going too far.

Elizabeth Broderick is Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the Australian Human Rights Commission spokeswoman on violence, harassment and bullying.