Protecting yourself from bullies

My 10 yr old nephew was extorted by a school-mate recently. After getting a $26 coin display book as a promise not to bully him, the bully now demanded a present every term, amounting to $100 each. Dilemma: do we step in to support him?  Speak to the teachers? Speak to the bully (same age). Ask him to take up tae Kwando?  Fight back? Kick the boy? Shout at him?

I decided to survey my friends.  Have you been bullied in school?

Surprisingly, most of my male friends have been bullied in school than females at some point or other.  [According to the Singapore Children Society, 1 in 4 students in Singapore have been bullied.]  Are males more aggressive? Or do they need to join groups and tend to view with suspicion those who are loners.

A recent report by the Straits Times, show that even students from top schools join gangs. And the highest usage for Facebook is to recruit gangs.  The article goes on to say that these teenagers join gangs to gain attention.  Or is it simply for protection from bullies? Safety in numbers. We all need social support. Hawthorne experiments in the 1940s show that social interest is motivational.

If you think that bullying stops after the child leaves school, think again. Workplace bullying, from bosses, peers, sexual harassment. It doesn’t end.  Most of us who have been bullied in school wonder why others don’t step up to help us.

Stanford Prison Experiment

During the 1970s, a social psychologist Prof Philip Zimbardo conducted a Prison experiment in the basement of Stanford University using students as subjects. He divided students randomly into roles as prisoners and guards randomly. The experiment was supposed to last over 2 weeks but ended after only 6 days due to how quickly circumstances escalated. Of the guards, only one guard took on the role of a “maniac” nicknamed “John Wayne” who came up with creative ways to torture the prisoners. Yet the other guards look passively on, and didn’t stop him. Many of the prisoners also accepted the mental abuse at the request of “John Wayne” readily harassed other prisoners who did not follow the rules, i.e. the prisoners turned against each other. Zimbardo, who took on the role as the superintendent was so immersed in his role, that even when he witnessed the psychological trauma suffered by the “student prisoners” allowed the abuse to continue.

[Zimbardo has written a recent book: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil]

There will always be evil people.  But how will you react if:

1. You were a person on the sidelines. Not a victim, but witness to bullying.

2. If you were a victim?

3. If you were in a position in authority and there’s bullying under your care. (And you don’t particularly like the victim either.)

4. Am I a bully?

What would you do? Look away?

A friend who was a son of diplomats, changed international school every few years whether in Asia, Europe or US. So he had to make new friends (and deal with cultural shock).  Good thing that he’s a tall, strong Asian. He has certainly learnt to communicate well. His advice:

  • Pick up a sport, or a skill, an activity in school and hang out with friends in that sport. Say, if you’re with the school athletics club, hang out with the guys whom you share a common interest.
  • Look for people with similar values as you. (But don’t join a gang. Easy to join, hard to leave :-))
  • Pick up social cues.
  • Learn to find your own voice.

But how do we practice these skills?

With increase of bullying and youth suicides, I wonder if its related. Even if its not, studies have shown that a sense of belonging increases psychological health. Career success doesn’t come from IQ alone but also from social capital. Over the next few months, I’m going to find out how to teach young people to connect and protect themselves. Not through Tae Kwando. But mankind’s oldest pastime- bonding.








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