It started as a regular Tuesday at school for 15-year-old Sophia but by 11.40am, everything had changed. During Math a giggling classmate thrust a list at her, Stuff We Hate About Sophia and Dylan. On it were dozens of anonymous comments from her peers, most of them ridiculing her appearance – “Sophia has small boobs”, “Where’s your arse Sophia?” “LMAO = Sophia”. The list had been circulated amongst all 240 students in her year.
“Everyone was looking and giggling so I tried to brush it off as if I didn’t care. Weirdly I was more offended by the mean comments about my friend.
“Later that day, more abusive messages started popping up in our Whatsapp groups. Kids who I thought were my friends posted mean stuff and every message gave me a horrible feeling, like a tiny heart attack. Then one of the kids posted a photoshopped image on Instagram of my friend with his head in a noose. His mum went to the dean and one of the kids involved got suspended but it didn’t change a thing for us. The suspended kid bragged it was a three-day holiday and said his parents thought it was funny. There was no acknowledgement from the school, they didn’t care at all, and there was no apology from any of the kids. The mean stuff continued. My friend was so angry and hurt that he stopped going to school for a while. I didn’t really want to go either; it was hard to get up in the mornings.
“I felt anxious all the time, I worried about my friend and I was nervous about going to school. The comments about my looks left me feeling paranoid to the point I became too self-conscious to eat. I remember getting a butter chicken wrap from the tuckshop and one of the girls saying, “That looks disgusting” and suddenly I didn’t want it anymore. I was scared to say anything back. Whatever my first thought was, my second thought would be, ‘Don’t say anything else you’ll look stupid’. I pretty much stopped eating and developed anorexia.”
Stories like Sophia’s, while shocking and disturbing, are depressingly commonplace. Bullying in New Zealand high schools is rife – and the fallout is the decline in mental health of our rangatahi, impacting every aspect of their lives.
According to the Bullying Prevention Advisory Group (BPAG), a 15-member organisation including police and the Ministry of Education, every school in New Zealand has a bullying problem but it’s difficult to determine the scale of the problem compared with other countries because there is no universal process here for prevention or response, each school deals with it in their own way.
What BPAG does know is that bullying in schools takes many forms – physical, verbal and social – and that it happens in person, online and via text message. The research also reveals that young people who are bullied are more likely to be depressed, lonely or anxious; to have low self-esteem and to struggle academically; dislike school and miss classes; distrust peers and have problems making friends; and experience declined mental and emotional health.
Cyber bullying is on the rise to such an extent that Netsafe, the online safety organisation, offers schools an “incident response service”.
“When online safety challenges emerge, school resources can be quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of moving parts. Whether incidents occur inside or outside of school property and school hours, they spill over to impact on students and staff,” says the team at Netsafe.
“Netsafe provides advice and assistance to help schools quickly navigate incidents, minimise harm, and return to normality. This includes advice on gathering evidence, having harmful content removed from websites and social media, information about legal implications and connection with specialist agencies such as traumatic incident response teams.”
To date, more than 300 schools and kura in New Zealand have signed up to Netsafe’s free programme on preventing and responding to cyber bullying between students. The flip side is that the other 2000 or so schools in the country, Sophia’s amongst them, are not Netsafe schools.
“I had never heard of Netsafe, it sounds amazing and I think every school should be a Netsafe school,” says Sophia. “If we’d had them helping, I think it would have created a lot more awareness around the seriousness of bullying and I would feel safer at school knowing that students weren’t allowed to do stuff like that. The line about what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour would be a lot clearer.”
BPAG says that effective prevention and response strategies are centred on a shared understanding of what constitutes bullying so that everyone – students, teachers, school leaders, whānau and wider community – can consistently recognise and deal with bullying when it happens. It defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behaviour that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Kids who bully use their power – such as physical strength, knowing something embarrassing, or popularity – to control or harm others. Bullying is when one student (or a group of students) keeps picking on another student again and again to make them feel bad. They say or do mean things to upset them, make fun of them a lot, try to stop them joining in, or keep hitting or punching them.”
It is widely accepted that bullying incidents generally involve three different roles: initiators (those doing the bullying), targets (those being bullied), and bystanders (those who witness the bullying). Some bystanders take sides, some remain passive and others become “upstanders” by behaving appropriately – discouraging or reporting the bullying and getting help for the student being hurt.
Young people unsure who to approach for help regarding cyber bullying can text “Netsafe” to 4282, more news to Sophia. “Wow, that’s amazing! Everyone in every school should know this! I would definitely have used that service if I’d known about it.
“The way I see it now, schools shouldn’t just sit back and expect kids to work it out. They need to take direct action and get parents involved in the serious stuff. One meeting isn’t enough, there needs to be follow up to make sure everyone’s doing OK.”
It’s a year since Sophia’s bullying nightmare began and she says she’s in a much better space now. With support from her family and a counsellor, her anorexia is under control and she’s settled into a group of “true friends”.
“I’ve found some really good friends who care about more than looks and we have fun together. In the past I used to be too embarrassed to text the group chat first or to suggest hanging out because they might ignore me but it’s different with real friends, you can just be yourself.”
By Anna Clements