Bullying among young people is nothing new. But there is now increasing talk of the need to raise awareness about the devastating impact on people’s lives and to find effective methods to tackle bullying and prevent it.
Most countries have some kind of initiative to address the problem; some even have laws that can be used. But with bullying behaviour also now an issue in cyber space, there is debate about what is the best solution.
Denmark is one of the countries where the issue is often talked about. Surveys in the late 90s showed that a quarter of 11 to 15-year-olds had experienced bullying among children.
In Copenhagen Right On spoke to one teenager who suffered harassment over a four-year period.
“My teachers helped me all they could, but it didn’t help with the students, so I had to change my school,” said the 15-year-old girl. “It was like bullying because of my name, what my name is, like they didn’t think I was Danish. And they bullied me saying that I was fat. I came home from school every day and cried. They were just bullying me with everything I said, everything I did. So I had to change my school.”
In many countries anti-bullying efforts are focused on encouraging children to seek help. Parents and teachers are also under pressure to keep an eye on vulnerable students and take firm action when cases come to light. Other experts say attitudes must change among those who witness bullying and do nothing.
In Denmark there is another innovative approach, and that is tackling the issue as early as possible.
Euronews visited a kindergarten north of Copenhagen – Aadalen in the town of Kokkedal – one of many preschools and primary schools running a prevention programme called Free of Bullying. It is a joint project of Save the Children Denmark and a foundation set up by the country’s Australian-born Crown Princess Mary. The programme was her initiative, inspired by the Australian Better Buddies project.
Children are taught how to be a good friend – with the help of a purple teddy bear called Buddy Bear – to strengthen the group spirit and how to say “stop” if they are the target of bullying. Two adults led the children through a series of activities, accompanied by music and movement.
Right On asked some of the children, aged about four, whether they were allowed to bully. “No”, they all said. Why not? we asked. “Because it’s not fun,” said one little girl. “Yeah, it’s not fun, and then you become sad,” said another.
Massaging each other is another key element of the programme, to encourage empathy and the importance of caring for others. Organisers say they are hoping to pass on the key values of tolerance, respect, care and courage, for positive relationships in childhood but also later in life.
Kindergarten teacher Lasse Lynaes told Euronews’ Seamus Kearney: “There are many children who don’t have the confidence and who feel they’re being bullied, and it begins early in the kindergarten. And if you don’t nip it in the bud, it will carry on throughout life.
“Those who are bullied will bully others in school and later on in life. As an adult, if you’ve been bullied, you’re more likely to be someone who bullies. So we feel it’s important to stop the bullying here.”
The teaching aids include books, music and conversation boards. Half a dozen staff at this kindergarten have been trained in how to run the activities, and the role of parents is seen as important. The mother of one four-year-old boy taking part says she has definitely seen positive results.
“I think he was one and a half years old when he said a few words,” said Marianne Bjerg, “and he said the word stop! He always said stop when he didn’t like something. And we can see the empathy.
“In our home we think it’s very important to learn empathy towards other children, or another human being, to care, and I can see that if he sees someone is hurting or if I am sad, he can take my shoulder and ask ‘are you ok mum?’ And that’s when I see that OK, this is working.”
Right On’s Seamus Kearney reported: “Since it was launched in 2007, the Free of Bullying programme is now used in one in three Danish kindergartens and in a quarter of primary schools. Schools in Greenland have also introduced the programme and there is interest from other countries including Estonia.”
There is confidence in Denmark that attitudes are changing for the better, with surveys suggesting that incidents of bullying are on the decrease. On a European level, the EU is also studying what further action it can take and how it can support national child protection systems.
Experts say there is also a need to identify and spread the word about good practices that get results.