As the end of the school year approaches, one group of children feel particularly relieved. For those who regularly experience bullying at school, summer holidays are a sweet release, albeit a temporary one. For most other children, the summer recess is a celebration but for the victims of bullying, it can be an escape.
Perhaps the worst consequence of bullying in childhood is that it dramatically increases the risk of mental health problems later in life.
Research presented at the 2019 Royal Economics Society annual conference detailed a study that followed 7,000 schoolchildren in the UK from the age of 14 until they turned 25. The research team found that close to half of these pupils experienced some form of bullying: name-calling, social exclusion or physical aggression.
Worse still, the victims of bullying had a 40 per cent greater risk of experiencing mental health problems by the age of 25. They also performed less well academically, by around 10 per cent, and were 35 per cent more likely to be unemployed at age 25.
Whichever way we look at it, bullying is bad for mental health, and it affects educational outcomes and employment prospects. It is worth keeping in mind warnings of the World Health Organisation: "Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age" and "10 per cent of children and adolescents experience a mental disorder". Bullying is undoubtedly a major contributory factor to the onset or worsening of many of these cases.
Bullying in childhood also appears to be universal. A study published in 2016 by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement looked at rates of bullying among a quarter of a million fourth grade pupils across 48 countries.
The Gulf states of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar were included in this study. All of them scored above the 48-nation average. Bullying was reported everywhere, but the scores ranged widely, with nations such as Sweden and Armenia at the low end and Thailand and Qatar at the top end. For example, the average rate of bullying experienced by a child in Thailand was close to four times greater than that of a child from Armenia.
A subsequent report about the effects of bullying was published in Child Indicators Research in 2019. This study looked at 20 schools across the UAE and included 1779 students from grades 6 to 9. The study found that around 17 per cent of students experienced bullying regularly – several times per week; that the rates were lower for girls; and the most common form of bullying was "name-calling".
This figure of 17 per cent chimes well with the data reported by the annual Knowledge and Human Development Authority's Dubai student well-being census, targeting Dubai students, grades 6 to 12. The census, now in its 4th year, typically reports that over 80 per cent of students say they are "happy at school" or feel "contented and calm". But bullying is undoubtedly one crucial factor that gets in the way of schools and governments reaching the target of 100 per cent.
A key strategy to improve the nation's health and reduce the burden of mental illness is to prevent bullying in schools.
In 2018 the UAE's Ministry of Education (MOE) ran a major national bullying prevention campaign. This campaign is now an annual event, held each November, coinciding with world children's day. The MOE also published a national policy aimed at preventing bullying in both public and private schools. There are, of course, many other initiatives and organisations actively involved in the fight against bullying in the UAE.
Besides prevention of bullying, we need to promote "prosocial behaviours", such as kindness, co-operation and being helpful and inclusive. No school should ever be ranked as "outstanding" unless it can clearly demonstrate how it promotes prosocial behaviours.
Beyond an anti-bullying policy, schools could also consider a compassion strategy. Many existing initiatives have proven effective in cultivating prosocial behaviours. For example, schoolyard greening or increasing the biodiversity in and around school premises. Another is teachers attending mindfulness courses with instructors who have the required credentials.
Initiatives like the mindful classroom and the green classroom are not difficult to implement and can have positive effects on the whole school. The UAE is taking important steps in tackling bullying and its ramifications.
The call to "raise awareness" about mental health has become almost cliche. We need to move on and raise awareness about the causes of such problems. Being bullied in childhood is one such cause and it is something we can change. We can and should strive to eliminate all kinds of unkindness. Promoting prosocial behaviours is an excellent way to prevent bullying.
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National