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Cyberbullying, that schoolyard body slam, and footballers behaving badly

By Peter West - posted Friday, 18 March 2011


Cyberbullying has schools and parents worried in many parts of the world. This week there appeared on many Australian newspaper websites a troubling video clip. A rather overweight boy is picked on by a smaller, stronger boy. The younger boy keeps hitting the other boy until the victim lashes out, picking up his attacker and throwing him on the ground. The incident 'went viral', appearing on a number of websites around the world, and what one site called "an instant hit on Facebook". We should all hang our heads in shame.

The incident dramatizes a huge problem for schools. Boys have probably been fighting since the beginning of time. Kids will bully each other. Girls do it verbally- "you're not our friend any more and you can't come to my party". Boys do it physically: hitting, punching, shoving. The difference today is that an incident is photographed on the ever-present mobiles and uploaded to the internet. Thus a worrying schoolyard incident can make a child a hero, a victim, or a bully AND it is seen by thousands- maybe millions- around the world. This is too much psychological damage for any child to bear. One American girl suicided after being cyberbullied by her ex-girlfriend's mother.

Schools simply don't know what to do. They try to educate kids about the need to stop bullying. Schools in NSW have tried to ban mobile phones at school, only to have the NSW Dept of Education and Training say that can't be done. It interferes with children's rights, apparently. Our bureaucratic Department, designed in the 1880s, is out of touch with all the changes that have happened since. Warnings to parents are ineffective. And punishments are hopeless: the boys in the incident mentioned have both been suspended. Thus we punish bully and victim alike. When they return to school, the boys will have to live with the ramifications of what was done, in the school and in their community.

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Social media are changing our society, like it or not. An earthquake, a cyclone or a robbery occurs, and it's on the net in minutes. Immature teenagers - and footballers - are unable to stop themselves putting stupid comments on the internet and advertising their foolishness to the world.

Our cult of violence makes all this worse. What happens in the movies if someone insults you? You punch him. If someone suggests you're not masculine? You punch him. You're a star footballer and someone says you're not as good as some other player? Of course, you punch him. Could someone please explain to these footballers (in words of one syllable) that late at night, out on the town, you're only going to find trouble? Or better still, give each NRL player a minder to make sure they stay indoors after midnight.

Football captures boys' hearts and minds, far better than school does. When I give a workshop to teachers and talk of the need for better models for boys, I'm often told "bring in a footballer". Are they serious? There are thousands of great sportsmen and women in Australia: swimmers, golfers, netballers, runners. But NRL snatches most of the media attention. And now NRL is linked closely with gambling. I wonder who benefits from all this? Certainly not Australian boys.

The solution suggested to any given problem is usually better education. Wrong! Schools are bursting at the seams, underfunded and trying to teach too much already. We need to look much harder at what's happening in our schools and other places. Paying teachers more and finding better teachers might be a start, if anyone has the guts to try. Finding more effective punishments for children's misbehaviour is clearly way overdue. But since the cane was abolished, there are few punishments we can use. Parents struggle to control kids. Watch them fail to stop kids grabbing chocolates - cunningly located at their eye level in shops.

Maybe some of these things will work. First, teach parents how to raise kids and demand more responsibility from them. Tell parents not to let their kids use computers out of their supervision. Second, send bullies to a tough boot camp for a week. Third, make kids keep mobiles in their lockers all day, including lunchtime. Fourth, provide more sporting opportunities for kids, perhaps working with police. Last, one solution was found by the European Union. In 2009 it signed a pact with seventeen social networking sites to protect privacy among teenagers, and make it easier to report abuse. The community must accept that we are all responsible for how the next generation is raised. And we all live with the consequences.

In all this, there's a challenge for the incoming Liberal Government in New South Wales. It should look at the issues schools are grappling with, and give them more power to solve these problems, cyberbullying included.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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