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Victims no more

Concordia researchers aim to reduce bullying among Canadian youth
May 5, 2015
By Julie Gedeon

Bullying has existed for centuries yet only began to receive serious academic research attention in the 1970s. While our society now encourages individuals who don’t fit into majority norms to be themselves, they often face verbal and/or physical confrontation from others who feel threatened by increasingly liberalized social values or don’t realize the potentially serious consequences of their picking on differences.

Social media plays an increasingly key role. Facebook, Twitter and other platforms often work towards positive change by connecting individuals who form a minority and giving them a louder social voice. The internet, however, can just as readily be used to increase or magnify victimization. Media reports about teen suicides related at least in part to social-media bullying have emphasized the need for action.

To help address these issues, Concordia co-hosted an anti-bullying symposium for teachers and school administrators in November 2014. As Concordia President Alan Shepard told guests, a number of faculty are spearheading important research aimed at making it easier for all children to grow up in a world that embraces differences rather than targeting and victimizing individuals. As Shepard said, “Bullying research is the perfect example of knowledge translation helping make an immediate difference on the front lines.”

Making friends

William Bukowski William Bukowski, director of the Centre for Research in Human Development, conducts research on youth peer relationships. One of his studies looks at elementary and high-school students’ level of emotional well-being and feelings of victimization and exclusion.

Friends can make a world of difference for coping with verbal aggression, according to William M. Bukowski, a Concordia University Research Chair in Psychology (Tier 1) and director of the Centre for Research in Human Development. Students with close friends tend to get over an episode of bullying or victimization more quickly than individuals who feel isolated.

Longstanding research indicates that individuals who are withdrawn and/ or aggressive tend to run a greater risk of being victimized. “People don’t like to hear this because they think you’re blaming the victim, which is not the case,” he emphasizes. “What they also don’t like to hear is that people who are victimized are often victimizing others as well.”

Bukowski’s latest research indicates that children who are picked on but have friends don’t suffer feelings of depression or withdrawal to the same extent. “Given that it’s difficult if not impossible to eliminate all the reasons that youths bully or victimize others, this new research is encouraging in that it shows that we can take real steps to minimize the impact,” Bukowski says.

He’s now looking at other factors affecting those feeling victimized. “Our current study — which has yet to be published — indicates that people who feel victimized often have much higher levels of anxiety, which can make them hypersensitive to an experience that isn’t totally positive, while other individuals will more readily dismiss what happened.”

A few studies indicate that you can implement a very time-consuming set of procedures to reduce bullying, or simply arrange to have a bully and victim sit next to each other in class.

What many people may find even more surprising about the new research is that being excluded — denied access to a group and its resources — has a much greater and lasting negative impact than being victimized. “We are social animals,” Bukowski explains. “Except perhaps for the last 600 years, being excluded meant almost certain death. So it doesn’t surprise me that being excluded would have a larger negative impact than being treated badly.”

Being disliked by some or all is tough, yet being cut off by a group and its resources is often more devastating. “The best predictor of negative outcomes is exclusion,” Bukowski reports. “Someone who is excluded at any particular time — even after you factor in victimization — is going to show higher levels of depression than children who have not been excluded. An excluded child will also show higher levels of lingering distress up to two months later.”

The research further indicates why it is so difficult to pinpoint a single cause of bullying or victimization for most of the tragic cases of youth suicide that capture media attention. “These are always terrible occurrences, no matter what the circumstances,” Bukowski says. “However, it is often difficult to learn from these tragic cases because they are often also excluded from their peers and tend to have very bad family relations.”

While having a network of friends is a powerful ally, just getting students to know each other to some extent can significantly improve circumstances. “A few studies done by my colleagues in the Netherlands indicate that you can implement a very expensive, complicated and time-consuming set of procedures to reduce bullying, or you can simply arrange to have a bully and victim sit next to each other in class,” Bukowski says. “When the bully and victim have to co-exist under a relatively well-monitored situation, they begin to get to see each other differently.”

Bukowski is impressed with how teachers at one Montreal school dedicate substantial time to group activities during the initial weeks of each school year so students can bond to some extent. “This kind o f getting to know each other builds empathy that helps to minimize victimization,” he says.

The importance of gay-straight alliances

Hilary Rose Hilary Rose, associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Applied Human Sciences, is involved in a Canadian institutes of health research-funded project that is surveying 146 Canadian school districts to see how they’re dealing with issues involving homophobia.

Hilary Rose, an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Applied Human Sciences, has been examining how bullying, harassment and other kinds of victimization can lead to suicidal thoughts and even attempts. Rose is a member of the research team being led by Elizabeth Saewyc at the University of British Columbia. The team is using survey data collected by the McCreary Centre Society of more than 23,000 B.C. high-school students — a large enough sample to adequately represent lesbian, gay and bisexual youth.

“We looked at what the impact is of a school having an explicit antihomophobic policy as well as a Gay-Straight Alliance [GSA], which is a student-run club where everyone is welcomed regardless of sexual orientation,” Rose explains. “So there are members who are straight allies of the gay kids and help normalize being a member of a sexual-minority orientation or transgendered within the school.”

The research will help address the need for Canadian data that has largely been lacking about heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning (LGBTQ) youth to date. The project forms part of a fiveyear initiative that has Canadian and international researchers focusing on bullying, victimization and suicide, as well as health inequalities in sexualminority youth. In 2012 the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) provided a $2 million grant, the largestever such grant given by CIHR.

Rose’s research indicates that schools that have a clear anti-homophobic policy and a GSA club not only helped to protect LGBTQ youth against bullying, harassment and suicidal thoughts or attempts, but also straight kids.

“When a school had this kind of policy and a well-established GSA club for a period longer than three years, they influenced the overall school climate,” Rose says. “They send a real message to all the students at the school that it is a more accepting place, which can reduce the stigma for heterosexual boys who don’t fit the usual stereotypes for masculinity,” Rose explains. “In general, boys are more likely than girls to be teased about being gay, even if they aren’t.”

We found that 385 heterosexual boys were teased about being gay even though they weren’t — compared to 181 gay and bisexual boys. So it’s about who is perceived to be gay.

With about 90 per cent of most student populations being heterosexual, the number of straight males who are teased for not conforming to traditional ideas about masculinity is usually quite large. “We found in our study that 385 heterosexual boys were teased or bullied about being gay even though they weren’t — compared to 181 gay and bisexual boys,” Rose states. “So it’s not just about who is gay but who is perceived to be gay.”

Anti-homophobic policies and GSAs therefore help a wider student population at a school. A survey conducted by the Égale Canada Human Rights Trust found that 90 per cent of high-school kids hear the terms “you’re so gay” or “that’s so gay” regularly, with approximately 70 per cent of them hearing it daily. And 80 per cent of high-schoolers regularly hear pejorative words such as faggot, queer, lesbo or dyke — 50 per cent of them daily. In addition to the LGBTQ youth, a majority — 60 per cent — of the heterosexual survey respondents found these homophobic comments disturbing.

The Égale Canada data indicates that one in four heterosexual students is teased about how they convey their masculinity or femininity. “They are more likely to be teased about their gender expression than about their perceived sexual orientation,” Rose notes. “It really comes back to boys facing harassment if they don’t fit society’s expectations of masculinity. And boys are under much greater pressure about their body image than ever.”

Countering discrimination

Gilbert Émond Department of Applied Human Science associate professor Gilbert Émond worries about youth at schools where homophobic acts go unpunished. “They have their brand-name clothing or shoes taken away from them. In some cases, these items are burnt.”

Rose is collaborating with Gilbert Émond, associate professor in the Department of Applied Human Science, as well as colleagues at other universities on another aspect of the CIHR initiative. The project involves virtually every school board in Canada asking what each of them has in place in terms of programs and resources to help teachers and school administrators relate LGBTQ information and acceptance.

“This is not merely observational research,” Émond says. “It’s proactive to establish what there is and where the holes in the system continue to exist, so that we can address them.”

Once the inventory is completed, efforts will be made to find ways to integrate the highly effective resources of existing community organizations into programs and perhaps speaker tours to help address homophobia among students and make LGBTQ youth feel welcome at school.

Émond notes that some of the school boards have clearly refused to participate. Others stated they were overwhelmed with administrative responsibilities and therefore did not have the time or resources to answer. “If some do not want to answer these basic questions under the protection of anonymity, I think it says a lot about their avoidance of the entire topic,” he states.

Quebec’s education law actually requires school boards to have policies to address homophobia in their schools, but the refusal to address the subject indicates that a lot of work remains to be done towards having effective policies implemented everywhere.

Émond is also looking to determine how to reduce stigma and promote resilience for LBGTQ youth regarding health interventions. “If you feel discriminated against, you’re less likely to disclose information that might be important to your health,” he explains. “This could be relevant to a person’s treatment or protection against particular sexually transmitted diseases.”

Émond has witnessed the dire consequences of homophobia during his previous HIV studies. “A lot of people only went to the hospital when they were already dying from AIDS because they feared being ostracized if others found out that they had HIV,” he says.

If some [school boards] do not want to answer these basic questions under the protection of anonymity, I think it says a lot about their avoidance of the entire topic.

A major difference in overall societal attitudes can start at schools. “What students learn to be acceptable behaviour in their school is often what they take with them as acceptable elsewhere, too,” Émond says. His previous studies reveal how casual remarks in schools and elsewhere can have further negative implications. “When you have a school or a hospital where people are permitted to say things like, ‘That’s so gay,’ it sends out a message that homophobic discrimination is permitted and it warns individuals that they may not be welcomed if they give any indications of being different from the majority.”

The discrimination at schools where homophobic remarks go unchecked often results in LBGTQ youth being aggressively targeted. Émond still worries about a 13-year-old who related being shoved into a locker, where he remained trapped for two hours until a janitor overheard his attempts to get out. “He did not attend school afterwards, which can have a profoundly negative impact,” Émond recalls.


Jihan Rabah PhD candidate Jihan Rabah is working on a documentary that will reveal the experiences of individuals marginalized on social media.

The lack of face-to-face communication on social media is one of the reasons that cyber-bullying has proliferated. Jihan Rabah, a doctoral candidate in Educational Studies, is a co-investigator on a two-year project funded by Public Safety Canada to research hate speech on social media, with the goal of developing educational materials about online violence among Canadian youth.

“We’re aiming to collect and develop curriculum materials that encourage the use of social media to counteract online hate speech,” says Rabah, who is collaborating with Department of Education associate professor Vivek Venkatesh, assistant professor Robert McGray from Brock University, doctoral candidate Tieja Thomas and 11 other Canadian academics.

People want others to know that while social media is an important tool for empowerment, it can also be used as a means to marginalize people.

Along with identifying and coordinating the best current information to share via an online portal, the researchers are embarking on individual projects to expand and improve existing curriculum resources regarding online victimization for use with high school, college and/or university students.

“I am also involved in making a documentary about the dark side of social media,” says Rabah about the project she is doing in collaboration with the principal investigator, Adeela Arshad-Ayaz, assistant professor in the Department of Education. “The objective is to explore and make evident the effects of hate speech through social media.”

The documentary will relate what it feels like to be victimized or excluded by hate speech on social media. Actors will portray the individuals and leave out details that can identify those who were victimized. A number of individuals have already signed up for the project. “People want to talk about how they have been excluded or marginalized,” Rabah says. “They say that it’s important for others to know that while social media is an important tool for empowerment, it can also be used as a means to marginalize people.”

As a mother, the potential negative impacts of social media particularly concern Rabah. She has to remind her own children that texting messages to friends or posting Facebook statuses is not the same as casually talking with friends in person. “They think being online is just another ordinary conversation,” she notes. “They don’t realize how they are documenting their lives and how that information can be spread.”

—Julie Gedeon, BA 81, BA 89, MA 09, is a Montreal freelance writer.

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