WA’s Australian of the Year Donna Cross is a vocal advocate for young people devoting much of her time as ECU Foundation Professor of Child and Adolescent Health at the Child Health Promotion Research Centre has been researching the effects of bullying and believes that GPs have an important role to play in dealing with young people at risk.
“There’s such a need out there. Our research indicates that one in four children sitting in a classroom has been bullied and one in 10 have, at some stage, bullied others. In the consulting room when a young person presents with a physical problem, there may well be a mental or social component lying underneath that. I know they only have a limited amount of time, but GPs are in a wonderful position to discuss these issues and refer a young person for appropriate help,” said Donna.
She began her professional life in the classroom, including teaching disadvantaged schools in Harlem.
“I spent five years in Harlem from 1988 until 1993, which was before Mayor Giuliani’s reforms, so it definitely had its moments, but it inspired me to look at the changes we could initiate using schools as a vehicle to focus on families, and young people in particular, who were struggling under great social disadvantage which led to all sort of health problems,” she said.
And for Donna, who has a 10-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, those speaking for children need to be heard loudly and often.
“One of the biggest challenges is that children have no constituency, they don’t vote and their voices aren’t heard. They have so many important things to say and not very many vehicles with which to do it. The wider community trusts GPs and when they speak out people pay attention.”
Prof Cross has been doing her best to bring issues such as bullying to greater prominence.
“The most fundamental issue is the influence of peers. We need to address issues such as the pastoral care of young people, how they interact with each other, the quality of their relationships and how they can be more effective communicators. The CHPRC looks at influences, both positive and negative, and the most insidious of these is bullying. The amount of harm that comes from it is extraordinary, children are often derailed socially and it severely affects academic potential,” she said.
There is a strong gender component to bullying, with girls often more cutthroat, more underhand and efficient at spreading rumours and excluding others. Boys, on the other hand, are more overt and physical.
“A growing body of research suggests that covert bullying is extremely harmful, particularly if adults don’t take it seriously. For example, if a child is excluded from a group and an adult responds with something like, ‘Don’t worry, there are lots of other children to play with’, it’s almost condoning that behaviour. And children stop telling the important adults in their lives, which can lead to mental health concerns.”
Any parent with children in mid-primary school or above will be well aware of the potential perils of the internet.
“Since 2006 we’ve seen cyber-bullying appearing in our surveys. It’s another covert delivery mechanism and an increasing number of young children are being affected by it. We’ve got cross-sectional data indicating that children who have been bullied are now, within the safety of their home, getting some sort of retribution by anonymously attacking someone on-line in a public forum,” she said.
“Technology has enabled some young people, who may not have bullied others in the past, to bully using a highly pervasive platform. It’s all about disinhibition – they’re not actually looking at someone’s face when bullying and they have anonymity. Not only does that make it easier to perpetrate this behaviour, but the victim suffers a real sense of paranoia. They’re asking themselves, ‘who is it?’ and ‘why are they doing it?’ The end result is a loss of social capital because often there’s an unwillingness to form friends. It’s bullying on steroids.”
Linked with cyber-bullying are the findings surrounding regional and cultural differences.
“There are distinct regional differences. I recently attended a conference in Europe where I discovered the trends there are quite different to Australia and Asia. For example, in Germany it’s ‘Chat Rooms’ and other public platforms where they can be ‘seen’ by their peers whereas here in Australia texting and social media sites such as Facebook are used much more commonly used,” she said.
In Asia, particularly in South Korea and Japan, young people are far more likely to be bullied on ‘Gaming Sites’. There are avatars called ‘Griefers’ who forcibly enter the games and do all sorts of dreadful things to other children.
“Attitudes towards aggression, violence and bullying such as ‘you just have to put up with it, it’s a rite of passage and you’ll be a better adult as a result’ just can’t be tolerated. Some people who’ve been bullied can remember the actual day that it happened, even down to what they were wearing. This sort of behaviour relies on an audience, it’s socially driven and it establishes social hierarchies. It’s an important issue for us as a community and there’s still a lot we can do to shift the social norms around this type of behaviour,” said Donna.