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Bullying Diaries

Small Planet

Small Planet - Bullying Diaries - [Production Notes]
“Being bullied is like being in prison. You don’t do anything. You are so scared, so you can’t do anything. You’re just sitting there waiting and waiting, until you are not feeling any well at all. Nor the one who did this to you”. Vangelis is an 11-year old boy, in 6th grade. We met him in school, during a break. He is explaining about a picture that he drew for his teacher, showing a child behind bars, while others are yelling to him. He talks in small sentences, quite stressed. We ask him if he has ever experienced something like that. “Yes, in the past. But I can’t really remember. I don’t remember what they were saying to me”…
Vittorio, a fierce classmate, is running around in the school corridors, sometimes quarreling with other children. We can’t be really sure if this is a game, even caused by our presence, or an actual fight. “Well, I’ve done it! I’ve bullied other children, a million times! I don’t really care how they feel!” he declares out loud, in front of his classmates. But he is a lot more reserved when we are discussing in person the reasons for his behavior. “There is no real reason. If I have a good day, I probably won’t get into a fight. If I’m bored, I may bully someone, it goes like that. They’ve done this to me as well, so I won’t stand there doing nothing”, he finally tries to defend himself.
Is this really a “be a bully” or “be bullied” world for children? In the playground of this primary school in Kolonos neighborhood of Athens, some 260 young students are trying to make the most of their free time to play. They are running around, laughing, yelling, crying, teasing, and even pushing each other, full of energy and excitement. But, is there really another way someone could be as a child?
“Clearly, the children will make jokes and pranks and clearly they will quarrel! But when this is not happening between friends, when we see that there is an imbalance of power between the children involved, then there is an indication that we are talking about bullying”, explains Stefanos Alevizos, psychologist at The Smile of the Child organization. And as he emphasizes that certainly not everything is bullying, though his everyday presence in different schools enables him to draw our attention exactly to these cases that we could easily miss, where some children are suffering unnoticed, feeling unable to react.
Even though statistics can vary, organizations working on bullying consider as common ground that almost 1 out of 3 children have been involved in bullying incidents at least once during their school life.
Dr. Dan Olweus, a Norwegian pioneer in the field of bullying prevention, was the first to come up with a definition of bullying, back in the ‘70s: “Bullying is when someone, repeatedly and on purpose, says or does, a mean or hurtful thing to another person, who has a hard time defending himself or herself”.
Bullying can consist of verbal or physical violence, in schoolyards or in community, while harassment via Internet, publishing viral photos and videos on social media, is a new trend, deteriorating the problem.
So, what is bullying for someone may not be for someone else, according to his or her ability to react. Persistence in time is a decisive factor in these terms.
Sometimes it is a minor pretext that is being pointed: someone wears glasses or is taller than most kids of his or her age. Disabled children are often on the target. Then there are children that are being victimized in regards of the financial status of their family, their ethnicity or of their sexuality. Anyone considered to be different in any terms could become a target.
“The defining aspect in bullying is the power struggle between the “perpetrator” and the “victim”. Any pretext could be used for that”, emphasizes Niall Cowley, international director at the BeatBullying organization. “Then we must consider, what kind of role models, what kind of tools we are providing the children with, enabling them to hurt others”.
We are meeting Georgia in her home in Dartford. She is now 18 years old and we find her playing with her younger brothers and sister. There was a time that the thought of her loving family was the only one that kept her going. “Other people may have happy memories from school, but I’m glad that it’s all over for me”, she says in relief.
“It all started when I stopped hanging around with my girlfriends, because I started some dance lessons. Then they started calling me fat and ugly”, she recalls. Taking a look at the only photograph that Georgia’s mom has managed to save from that time, there was no obvious reason for this, if that matters at all. “In the beginning, I didn’t pay any attention, I thought they would stop. But they didn’t and the more they were saying this, the more I believed it. I believed that I was fat, I believed I was ugly. At that age you want to be slim and beautiful. You know… words can hurt”.
Hundreds of miles away, in Athens, Christina is another beautiful girl in her teens. When in younger age in school, she was bullied upon her appearance as well. “I felt so bad, that I reacted by becoming a bully myself”, she admits a bit embarrassed. “I entered a group of popular girls and started excluding others, making comments on their looks. In a way it was easier for me, than receiving comments myself”, she explains. Today Christina is a volunteer for The Smile of the Child organization, really keen on bullying prevention. As she confesses, she still has issues with her appearance because of the bullying experience in school.
With a strong stereotype of ideally beautiful and fit women socially imposed through magazines, movies, commercials and TV series, it is no wonder that girls would feel so stressed about their image.
If it is mostly in psychological terms -thus not so obvious- that bullying commonly occurs between girls, it tends to get mostly physical with boys.
“All I recall from primary school is my head serving literary as a ball for other boys, who were kicking me around in the playground”, says 16-year old Devan, in York. He’s not really willing to talk about the incidents that he has endured; you can understand that these memories are still causing him a lot of pain. Beating went on for years and at some point he was in danger to get seriously hurt. Getting older, he had a sensitive surgery that kept him away from all physical activities for months. “At that point, they stopped beating me. They started calling me a fag”, Devan confesses, even more restrained that before.
“What should I do? Should I fight back? I don’t want to”, says 13-year old John, from a small town in Greece that he doesn’t want to reveal. He is afraid that if recognized he will be beaten again in school, for that he has also requested not to refer to his real name. “They say I’m fat and they don’t want to play with me in gymnastics. This doesn’t feel good. Nobody comes to my support”.
“This is the role model of the macho man that we get”, comments Lefteris, a young boy in Gerakas suburb of Athens who has just finished high school. “Everybody expects you to be strong and powerful, and good in sports. If you can’t compete with that, even if you just don’t like football, you are considered to be somewhat strange”, he explains. Lefteris has never bullied anyone, but he’s afraid that with his tolerance, he has neither prevented bullying from taking place.
“Petros” is a young man who doesn’t want to reveal his real name. He is currently 25 years old and he has managed to secure a safe and loving environment that he doesn’t want to disturb, in an Athens neighborhood, away from his home. For “Petros”, school years, especially during high school, were a living hell. Both his classmates and his professors were bullying him for being gay. “One of my worst memories was during a school excursion. 4 or 5 of my classmates were chasing me around and once they grabbed me they started touching violently different parts of my body. Come on, don’t you like that, they were saying. A professor who was present said, hey guys, let the girl alone”.
“Because of the stigma on homosexuality that unfortunately still exists in 2014, the children that are being bullied for that, they are not willing to confess to anyone, because they know that most probably they won’t get any support. And that makes it a very dangerous case”, explains Niall Cowley from The BeatBullying organization.
Online bullying is a relatively new but quite persisting trend that came along with extended technology use, and has severely dangerous effects. Often, face to face bullying taking place in school or in community persists through the internet pages. That way the bullied child cannot find a safe heaven, even in his or her home. Then, the cyber bully can be a total stranger, and that makes it even scarier.
“The fact that I didn’t know who they were but in reverse they knew so much about me, that was terrifying. In the beginning they were commenting my looks. Then they started saying that I worth nothing and then they were directly threatening me and my family”, says Ellie in Colchester, currently 23 years old. When in high school, she spent 4 months in anxiety, when she realized that some strangers were stalking her. This affected her dramatically. She remained in home, even taking a break from school for some time. Police couldn’t help. In order to escape, Ellie just closed down all her accounts, but she is still afraid to move around, so she avoids getting outside from home as much as possible.
Yiannis is a 13year old boy that we meet in his home in Peristeri. He is a kind boy and he seems to enjoy his parent’s company, though as most children of his age he would prefer spending time on his computer. For sure, he has numerous favorite video games and he is fluent on most social media. “Not long ago, a girl had the idea to post a mean letter on another girl’s Facebook wall. There was a controversy between them at that time. Well, I didn’t write the letter myself, but I agreed that my name was on it. It was just a joke”, he says. Today he regrets that and has become a lot more careful regarding the use of internet in these terms. “You know, when you don’t see the other person’s face, you don’t get to realize that you are hurting him or her. But you have to remember that”, he explains.
“We need to remember that puberty is the period that the child is flirting with adulthood. One moment they behave as teenagers, then as adults. They are a lot more extreme, more intense; their behavior is more difficult to control”, notices Stefanos Alevizos, explaining how aggressiveness can be a normal aspect of growing up, since children in their early teens are trying to form their own identity. And that could also explain why it is mostly during secondary phase in school that a peak is recorded in bullying incidents.
But then, what is the adult role model that we are providing our children with, in a competitive world where everyone struggles to prevail? “I believe that if a child who is trying to stand out by being a bully, had a chance to stand out in school in another way, then the problem of bullying would be diminished a lot”, says Babis Chamalidis, a professor in a Greek high school. “If we were interested in the children’s various talents and tendencies, then they would value themselves for that, they wouldn’t feel they are failing us all the time, just because they are not getting good grades”.
Updated research broadly acknowledges that children behaving as bullies, they didn’t just wake up in the morning asking for a fight. They are also in need of our attention and care, especially since we notice that often we find children engaged alternately in both roles, of the “perpetrator” and the “victim”.
The lack of a safe and warm environment back home is usually decisive concerning a child’s lack of self-confidence, a determining factor for his or her behavior. And for sure, there is no other closer paradigm for a child in order to learn how to behave than his or her own parents. “We are all hypocrites”, emphasizes Niall Cowley, “because we are directly saying to our children, do as I say, don’t do as I do. We tell them what we are supposed to, and then we turn around making racist comments, making homophobic comments, and we laugh at humiliating photos on social media”.
“There is no easy answer on who is to blame”, explains Dr. Akis Giovazolias, lecturer in counseling psychology in the University of Crete. “We cannot point out only one factor, it’s the parents’ fault, or it’s the teachers’ fault. Bullying nowadays is considered to be a complicated phenomenon, with psychological, political and socio-economic parameters. Each one has a role in this. For example”, he adds, “we have noticed in Greece that the financial crisis has an impact on the problem”.
Mr. Iakovidis, the director of the primary school that we have visited in Kolonos, can easily understand that from his everyday experience: “Certainly, if the parents are unemployed, if the children come to school and are not well fed, you can imagine that the children are a lot more stressed and aggressive and the parents are not in position to take care of the problem”.
In this relatively poor area of Athens, Mr. Iakovidis’ students mostly come from families with low financial background, while 60% of them are second-generation immigrants. With the financial crisis enforcing racism among the Greek society, one can easily imagine that teaching in a multicultural school is not an easy task for the teachers. “Of course, it was more difficult for us to teach the children about the friendship and respect between different people, religions and civilizations, when at some point we had the parents outside the schoolyard, asking for all immigrants to get out”, he says.
Maria is an 18year old girl from Albania, studying in a high school in Athens. Years ago, she had already experienced racist bullying from classmates. “Some went so far as to wait for me outside the schoolyard after class and laugh at me, in a circle. They started spitting at me and calling me names, saying “why did you come to my country, you must leave, you are not Greek”, she recalls. This kept going on for some months, and Maria was even having nightmares about that. Today she believes it was an immature and macho behavior of some of her classmates who wanted to boss around this way. “It’s sad, she says, that today these same guys are becoming members of Golden Dawn and walk around in the schoolyard as if in a military parade. I believe it’s the very same attitude behind of all that”.
Golden Dawn is the neo-Nazi party that has gained in popularity during the financial crisis and its presence has already resulted in attacks and murders against immigrants and political opponents in Greece. Unfortunately, this kind of violence increasingly occurs in schools also, while the whole social paradigm is changing.
Back in the primary school in Kolonos, some time ago, during the fights you would hear even some 8 year old children yelling: “I’ll call for Golden Dawn!” The director, Mr. Iakovidis is today proud to reassure that with a lot of hard work, the teachers have managed to establish a vivid and happy environment for all children again, dealing with any issues between them once they arise.
“We will either wait for the whole society to change, or we will work with what we have right now”, points out Dr. Giovazolias. “And what we have is the school community, the teachers, the parents, the children. Studies prove that in the same neighborhood, with the same socio-economic and cultural background, we can have a lot different results concerning bullying prevention, based on how well the school community works”, he concludes.
It is a fundamental human right for a student to be safe at school and be spared the repeated humiliation that is implied in bullying. In this process, the spectator, either the peer group, the teachers, the parents, the whole society setting the example, is the one with the real power to make the change.
Remembering all the children that we have met, either bullied or bullies, we wonder: Are we ready to listen to what they have to say?
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