In India, there are no laws against bullying in schools/educational institutions per se. However, if a victim of bullying dies by suicide, then the bully will be liable for the abetment of suicide under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code. While Sections 354A and 354D of the IPC provide punishment for cyber bullying and cyber stalking against women, there is nothing specific for schools.
Tarika Nagi, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City speaks about the effects of bullying and cyber bullying in an exclusive interview. She has several years of experience in suicide prevention, school safety, school crisis management, adolescent mental health, and anti-bullying education.
What are the psychological, social, emotional, and physical effects of bullying?
In recent years, there has been growing concern about the link between bullying and suicide. The Suicide Prevention Resource Centre (US) has conducted a thorough review of the literature, which has revealed a strong association between the two. Evidence suggests that individuals who have experienced bullying, either as a victim or as a bully themselves, are at a higher risk of suicidal ideation and attempts. As a result, it is vital that we prioritise both bullying prevention and youth suicide prevention programmes in our schools and communities.
In the past, the home was considered a safe space for children, where they could escape the pressures of the outside world. Back in my childhood days in India, returning home meant finding a safe space where you couldn't be bothered by anyone. At that time, Indian homes only had landline telephones with cords. I often joke that those years were defined by parents sitting beside that phone.
However, with the rising use of technology, this is no longer the case. Research indicates that a significant number of adolescent kids check their phones in the middle of the night to see if anything negative has been posted about them online. This highlights the severe impact that bullying and cyberbullying can have on young people's mental health and well-being. It is crucial that we acknowledge and address this issue to ensure that all children feel safe and supported both at home and in their communities.
How can school staff mitigate negative mental and emotional effects of cyber-bullying when working with children who have increasing access to technology?
First, try to get parents to take charge of the technology–basically to realise that all of it is a privilege, not a child’s right or necessity. Give parents this message about taking charge, “privilege, not a right!! ”The charging stations for the cell phones should be in the parents’ bedroom. At 10 pm, tell your child or teenager, “Give me your phone, I will charge it, I will hand it back to you when you get up in the morning.” At times, kids argue, what if my friends needed to talk to me in the middle of the night? They wouldn’t be able to reach me, and you can always remind them that if something is so urgent, you friends can talk to their own parent.
So, I think we can really stop a lot of this with trained, involved, empowered parents, and I do believe that the school systems have the expertise and the technology to help parents keep up. I always recommend that school systems have meetings and training for parents on what to look for, what to do, and how to handle these cyberbullying situations. Sometimes cyberbullying is so severe that the police might need to be involved.
It is crucial for school staff and administrators to support victims of cyberbullying by reassuring them that they don't deserve it and that steps will be taken to stop it. It's important to let them know that they are not to blame for the bullying, and that there will be consequences for the bullies. They need to understand that everyone is watching, and if the behaviour continues, consequences will escalate. To prevent cyberbullying, key factors include information, education, adult involvement, monitoring, supervision, consequences, and restrictions on technological privileges when necessary. Even one person, be it a school staff or a parent, can make a big impact.
You mentioned that prevention is key and absolutely crucial. But for parents, school staff, and school administrators who have a child or several students who have been bullied or who are bullies, what can be done once the situation has passed the point of prevention?
With the victims sometimes it may reach a point where there needs to be outside child psychiatry assessment and treatment. We might even need to consider changing schools. Obviously it is not going to be perfect, and bullying happens in reputed schools as well. Yet, a change of venue can help.
Now if we address the person who is the bully, they may need to be placed in a different educational setting. They may need counseling themselves. They might actually be the victim in some situations, and the bully in another situation, but they do need to face consequences.
Another key aspect of the solution is: how can schools get supportive reaction from the parents of the bully? How do they make sure that parents don’t think that in some way the school is implying that they’re a bad parent, that’s why they’re having this conference? And I’m not one that believes that much of the answer is suspension or expulsion–I think the solution really requires structure, counseling, trying to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.