In the Child and Youth Protection Centre of the City of Zagreb, we work with sexually abused children and their families every day. I am proud to say that here they can find a safe place where they get help and support. On the European Day on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, 18 November, we remind parents to read our publications about how to recognise and respond if the child has been sexually abused:
We have been coping with peer bullying for years, and yet, we seem to be utterly surprised when public attention is caught with a case of bullying, which is usual everyday life for many children. According to research conducted in Croatia, every fourth child is exposed to some form of peer bullying. Despite laws and protocols, we often react only when severe psychological or physical abuse has already taken place.
Having received information about peer bullying, adults and even experts who work with children, often justify their own lack of response by saying ‘there has always been conflicts and fights among children’. Some even consider it to be a favourable part of growing up because ‘that way children become stronger’. It is true that conflicts among children have always existed, but there is much difference between a conflict among children and bullying. Bullying is chronic, long-standing, without a real cause and, for some reason, the victim is always weaker than the bully or the group of bullies. That is the reason why these children need adults’ help.
The Internet has Contributed to the Cruelty of Peer Bullying
Children-victims of bullying cannot cope with the situation and consequences of bullying on their own. They find it difficult to confide in anyone because they are afraid they could do worse. That is how the bully threatens them, and they sometimes see that after an inadequate reaction of adults, it really is getting worse. Research indicate that 39% of children-victims talk about the bullying with their parents, 38% with their friends, 14% do not talk with anybody, and only 11% talk about the bullying with their teachers.
Research results also show that after asking for help, bullying stopped in only 26%, it reduced, but did not stop in 24%, nothing changed in 11% and in 4% things got even worse.
The Internet contributed to the increased cruelty and more intense ways of peer bullying, making the consequences of cyber bullying sometimes more severe than in real life situations. The fact is that the outreach of cyber bullying is much wider than of the bullying in the schoolyard, school hallways or in the classroom, e.g. if a web site, web log or a facebook group has been established with the aim of derision, ridiculing and isolating a child. The child cannot protect herself/himself in the virtual space; her/his traumatisation is proportional with the outreach of the medium. Besides, there is the power of the written statement, which is more concrete and real than the oral one.
Children Do Not Have the Safety of Their Own Home
Bullying via the Interned can take place anytime anywhere. Children do not even have the safety of their own home any more. They cannot go home and avoid being bullied, as it was possible before the Internet era, when they could go home and peacefully watch television, read or just play. Now, threats and disturbing messages, derision and ridiculing come to their room via the mobile phone and the personal computer.
Since the bully may remain anonimous on the Internet, many children use exactly that fact as an additional encouragement for violent behaviour. A bully in the virtual medium does not see the emotional reaction and suffering of the victim, which increases the bully’s cruelty. Besides, group belonging not only gives them a feeling of safety, but also reduces the feeling of individual responsibility, in both the real and the virtual world.
Reduced Empathy, Linking Fun to Violence
Having regretfully taken into account children’s reduced empathy, we see that violent behaviour has become fun and they link fun to violence. The Internet and the group of bullies they belong to, gives them a new opportunity of such a connection between fun and violence, which additionally reduces their empathy for the victim.
Professionals often ask why these children do not feel remorse and do not empathise with the victims. There are individual factors which have led to such behaviour of every abusive child. Frequent cause is a lack of closeness and warmth in the family, which may result in children not having developed empathy. The development of self-regulation and empathy in children is closely related to the method of their parents’ care of these children and of their developmental and emotional needs. Empathy can be understood as child’s gradual internalisation of their parents’ capacities to respond to his/her needs, i.e. as a transfer of parents’ emphatic capacity to the child.
The next cause of reduced empathy is the violent environment. Children who are exposed to violent content have a reduced sensitivity to violence. The more violence they see, the more they need in order to maintain their level of sensitivity. Besides, they imitate us, the adults. We, as a society have a reduced sensitivity and increased tolerance to violence, so children’s violent behaviour affirms their identity in the group and thus they achieve a sense of belonging to the group.
Introducing a Single Preventive Program Obligatory in All Schools
Let us not forget the children watchers of bullying. They are the most numerous group involved in peer bullying. Watchers, although they do not participate in bullying, encourage the bullies with their mere presence in the audience. Sometimes they join the bullies from fear these might turn against them.
It is important that parents, children and professionals know the causes and the consequences of peer bullying so that more adequate prevention and intervention is provided.
We have been talking a lot and doing little in prevention. It is high time a single preventive program against peer bullying is introduced in our whole country. It is high time we take that ‘child play and fun’ seriously and professionals, non-government organisations and government institutions start networking and all together generate solutions which individually we have been offering for years: single preventive program obligatory in all schools in the form of particular educational and counselling work with risk groups of children and families.