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Excerpted from Dr. Helene Guldberg, Anti-Bullying Campaigns:  Doing More Harm than Good?

Children’s relationships are a lot more complicated than the anti-bullying industry implies. We are told schools must adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying. But such an approach is deeply problematic. It suggests that whenever a child feels picked on or victimised, their troubles - whatever they may be - can be resolved in an instant by a third party. It teaches nothing about the complexity of friendships, enemies and relationships in general. It says nothing of the fact there will be some people in life you will struggle to get along with. It implies that a person has the right to expect everyone they meet to be unfailingly pleasant and kind. And when, inevitably, that doesn’t happen it suggests we have the right to have our differences ‘stamped out’ by a figure of authority.

A ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying also cultivates a culture of victimhood: if a child feels upset by other children’s actions or comments, they are encouraged to see themselves as the victim of bullying and go straight to a teacher at the first sign of trouble. In fact, the ABA’s advice for children and young people includes the statements: ‘Bullying is not your fault. It is always wrong and you do not have to put up with it’ and ‘Be confident – you have done nothing to deserve this’.

The ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying is not only problematic, it is also dishonest. There is nothing straightforward about minimising, never mind wiping out, behaviours that are having a negative effect on a child. Firstly, it is very difficult to determine when aggression constitutes ‘bullying’ and when it is a perfectly healthy response to a particular situation. Secondly, when a child is clearly suffering, it is not at all straightforward to work out how to make the situation better for that child.

Some children have a horrible time at school: they may dread going to school on a daily basis, be deeply unhappy and socially isolated. But how do we help make that situation better for that child? Not through the blunt instrument of anti-bullying policies, that’s for sure. There is no magic bullet.

In fact, the large-scale review of bullying research carried out by Clayton Cook and colleagues showed that the success of anti-bullying programmes has been limited. ‘Even when programs have an impact, the improvement appears to be changing children’s knowledge and perceptions, not bullying behaviour’ they write. Similarly, a large-scale study in Sheffield in the 1990s found that of the four schools that had implemented whole-school anti-bullying interventions, two of the schools had experienced a decline in bullying and two schools had seen a significant rise (5).

I am not arguing teachers and parents should turn their backs on the young and let them sink or swim. But we should be more honest in acknowledging that what goes on in the playground is a lot more complicated than the caricatured idea that there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ or ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’. Seeing a child shunned by their peers, looking lost and lonely in the playground, is heartbreaking. But labelling that child a ‘victim’ of bullying may make the situation worse. It is possible that by intervening adults make the situation worse. It is also possible adults could help sort the situation out. But how to do so is far from straightforward.

The people who will know best whether and how to intervene are teachers – who in most cases will know their pupils fairly well and have some sense of the playground dynamics. The anti-bullying industry’s tick-box approach to what is and is not acceptable behaviour will not be at all helpful. Neither will their trite message ‘Say NO to bullying’.

All I can conclude is that we need to do away with anti-bullying awareness campaigns and anti-bullying policies. They are blunt instruments that often label children as ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’. And the obsession with bullying is putting obstacles in the way of children learning – through unsupervised play – to deal with rejection, ‘roll with the punches’, resolve conflicts, learn to negotiate, and develop into more resilient, capable adults.