Duck, duck, goose. Can schools effectively manage bullying and abuse?

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Katerina Drakos, a 5th year medical student from the Lisbon School of Medicine and is a member of the Medical Students Association of Portugal. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


Preventing child and adolescent suicide: Taking action towards early detection of bullying.

Bullying has been conceptualized as intentional repeated acts of aggression towards peers, that may involve a power imbalance between the victim and the perpetrator. This phenomenon has been a point of discussion ever since I can remember and even as I grew older and matured, the slight mention of bullying takes me back to high school, which makes it clear to me how critical this topic has become for children and adolescents. From my experience, social structures of young people, be it in school or extracurricular actives, are a breeding ground for bullies and for negative comments that foster a toxic environment. Adolescence is a phase where young people are just starting to grow up, find their place in the world, and above all, trying to fit in. And amidst all this, bullies (often already possessing various aggressive traits) might feel the need to impose superiority.

Although the link between bullying and suicidal ideation is merely correlational, bullying is considered a risk factor for suicidal behavior.1

Most importantly, however, what strategies that can detect early signs of bullying can be adopted, and by whom?

The obvious and most relevant structure to focus on are schools, where children and adolescents spend over 1/3 of their day at and are essential in the promotion of a safe and healthy environment. Evidence garnered from a meta-analysis2 concluded that whole school approaches that included multiple disciplines and complementary components directed at different levels of school organization more often reduced victimization and bullying than the interventions that only included classroom-level curricula or social skills groups. These whole school approaches encompass schoolwide rules and sanctions, teacher training, classroom curriculum, conflict resolution training, and individual counseling.2


Although whole-school approaches are undoubtedly a strong focus point, there are resources that have demonstrated positive results and that may also be useful in the prevention of bullying. These consist of using virtual reality and artificial intelligence to simulate bullying situations, and where participants are placed in the shoes of a bystander. Recent research has shown that these experiments with digital technology provide a robust approach to foster awareness, empathy, pro-social behavior (since participants are immersed in the game in a safe environment, self-reflect on their choices, feel empathy, and engage in prosociality in cyberbullying situations), and may trigger feelings of empathy in bystanders, therefore influencing their behavior.3 This bystander perspective is fundamental, having been highlighted in a research study stating that “the mobilization of bystanders, or the silence of the majority witnessing bullying, are key to success.”4

So far, the influence of technology on children and adolescents has been demonized by the media, but I believe it’s time to change our perspective and look elsewhere for innovative solutions that can help in the early detection of bullying. Unfortunately, bullying, and other risk factors that predispose adolescents to suicide cannot be conveniently minimized by a vaccine produced in record time, and so, as this issue continues to be crucial when discussing suicide prevention, we must consider acting from every front possible.  

References

  1. Alavi N, Reshetukha T, Prost E, et al., 2017 [cited 25 October 2021]. Relationship between Bullying and Suicidal Behaviour in Youth presenting to the Emergency DepartmentJ Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry.; 26(2):70-77.
  2. Vreeman, R. and Carroll, A., 2007 [cited 25 October 2021]. A Systematic Review of School-Based Interventions to Prevent BullyingArchives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 161(1), p.78.
  3. Ferreira, P., Veiga Simão, A., Paiva, A., Martinho, C., Prada, R., Ferreira, A. and Santos, F., 2021 [cited 25 October 2021]. Exploring empathy in cyberbullying with serious gamesComputers & Education, 166, p.104155.
  4. Menesini, E. and Salmivalli, C., 2017 [cited 25 October 2021]. Bullying in schools: the state of knowledge and effective interventionsPsychology, Health & Medicine, 22(sup1), pp.240-253.

About the author

Katerina Drakos is a 5th year medical student from the Lisbon School of Medicine and is a member of the Medical Students Association of Portugal, ANEM-Portugal, National Member Organization (NMO) of the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA). She is one of the two Portuguese National Exchange Officers and works closely with other mobility issues in her NMO. She is particularly interested in mental health and psychiatric disorders and advocates for the freedom of expression, gender equity and initiatives that keep students well-informed regarding current events.

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