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Illustrations by Sophie Berg

6 surprising myths and truths about bullying

As a society, we get so much wrong about bullying. Here, we sort the facts from the wishful thinking

The bullying began in Grade 1 for Callie Lewis.* “There was this popular kid who said I had germs and no one could be friends with me,” she recalls. Due to a lack of effective adult intervention, Lewis was ostracized until she moved to a new province in Grade 5. But shortly after starting at her new school, she was bullied again for different reasons: ”I was always made fun of for being taller, I got called ‘fat’ a lot, or I was told I made weird faces and I was loud,” she says.

When Lewis was in her 30s, someone she’d confided in shared private information about her with others in their social circle. This betrayal brought on an episode of what she refers to as “dark anxiety”—and it lasted for years. In therapy, she came to realize her intense response was directly related to her experiences of childhood bullying. To this day, she often feels defensive or defers to the opinions of others, even in her closest relationships.

Lewis’s experiences are, sadly, not unusual. Seventy-five percent of Canadians say they’ve been bullied, according to PREVnet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), a nationwide group of researchers and associations who’ve joined forces to prevent and stop bullying.

For words or behaviours to qualify as bullying, there has to be a pattern of incidents, with an individual or a group repeatedly harming another individual or group through their words and actions. The first step in tackling this widespread problem is to challenge our own misconceptions about what it is and why it happens—and how to stop it. Here, we examine some of the myths and truths about bullying 

1. Myth: Bullying is a normal part of childhood with no long-term effects

“There is a desensitization piece when people say, ‘Ah well, everyone was bullied at some point in time,’” says Yads Anandarajah, a wraparound facilitator at YouthLink, a Scarborough-based United Way-supported social service agency that helps children and youth and their families. “But we get a lot of youth at YouthLink dealing with the aftermath of being bullied, and there’s a lot of anxiety and depression,” she notes. “[Bullying] can also affect their education—some of the youth I work with want to stay at home so they don’t have to interact with other students and face repetitive negative experiences.”

Illustration of a girl getting her pigtails pulled

2. Truth: Bullying is about more than just being mean

Ultimately, bullies are most concerned with demonstrating that they hold more power than others. “They’re targeting a person who’s not in a position to retaliate,” Anandarajah says. And according to PREVNet, if adults turn a blind eye to childhood bullying because they underestimate its impact, children who have been bullied may ultimately learn that taking advantage of a power imbalance and using aggression are effective ways to get what one wants. They may end up having a hard time understanding right from wrong, and this can affect their ability to maintain healthy relationships. It may also lead to predatory behaviour, hurting or abusing others, or participation in criminal activity.

3. Myth: Fighting back physically can stop a bully

We’ve all heard stories of people who say they punched a bully, who then stopped harassing them. But the reality in most cases is that fighting back physically against a bully is likely to make the abuse worse, reports PREVNet.

According to the anti-bullying group, one effective defence is to hang out with friends who will stand up for you—bystander intervention helps stop bullying in less than 10 seconds, 57 percent of the time. PREVNet also recommends teaching younger kids the words they can use to fight back—saying something like “Bullying is NOT cool”—and that they should follow up by telling an adult.

4. Truth: Bullying is used to teach marginalized populations that it’s wrong to differ from the norm

“Bullying is not a form of violence that is separate from our social and cultural norms, nor is it separate from systemic oppression,” explains Roza Nozari, anti-violence initiatives coordinator at The 519, a United Way-supported agency that helps support LGBTQ2S people in the Greater Toronto Area. She says that at the root of many incidences of bullying is the belief that certain groups of people are “wrong,” “bad” or undeserving of compassion and safety.

Nozari notes that queer, trans and two-spirit youth have disproportionately high experiences of bullying in schools. “For LGBTQ2S youth, bullying becomes a tool of social control—it teaches [them] the following messages: 1. They are ‘different’ from our social norms, and 2. This difference has violent consequences,” she says.

Illustration of three girls sitting around a table

5. Myth: There’s no need to talk to very young kids about bullying

Bullying typically peaks in middle school, through Grade 9, according to PREVNet. But we can start addressing the roots of it when kids are younger—even in preschool. “Educating young people on diversity and normalizing the many ways in which people exist and move through our world is crucial,” Nozari says. “We can meaningfully address and respond to bullying by building compassionate, inclusive communities that recognize all individuals as humans [who are] worthy of belonging.”

While this type of learning starts at home, teachers, school staff and community leaders are essential partners, too, notes Nozari. “We cannot forget that educational systems and their leaders also play a very vital role in countering homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and racism. [Their actions] send a message to LGBTQ2S youth that these systems have got their back, and that they can feel safe and live authentic lives,” she says.

6. Truth: Bullies need support, too

Bullies need help understanding that there are other ways to get what they need. And they need help to understand the effects of their behaviour and how to take responsibility for it. Reparations for harmful words and actions can include making an in-person or written apology. If property was damaged as a result of bullying, the bully should be the one to mend or replace it.

It’s critical to have conversations with bullies to uncover the reasons behind their behaviour and find ways for them to make things better. “Give them the space to share their thoughts and feelings,” suggests Anandarajah. “And have a discussion with the child, where they can understand what they’ve actually done and how they can repair that.”

* Name has been changed.

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