Long shadows of a pandemic: Violent bullying on the rise among schoolchildren

Schools, parents have been struggling to cope with extreme cases of verbal and physical bullying among children. Here’s what psychologists say.

In November, during a fight over video games among a group of 10-year-old boys at a government-supported school in Indore, Rishi of Class 4 was attacked over 100 times with compasses by three of his classmates. In another incident of bullying, two boys from a private school in Bangalore’s Kanakapura pressured a wealthy schoolmate into repeatedly stealing money and jewellery from his house, threatening him with serious injury if he didn’t.  After he was caught red-handed by his mother, he decided to kill himself rather than face the bullies, but was saved in time.

When Smriti from a missionary school in central Bangalore, did not share her ice cream with her friend and class monitor Muktha, not only did Muktha become her enemy overnight, but all the other students in her class, egged on by the monitor, stopped talking to her. She was isolated, ate her lunch alone and was not included in any of their activities. Smriti found online posts referring to her as thief, smelly, ugly and dirty. 

These rumours spread rapidly, resulting in bullying outside school too. Complaints to the teachers did not help, since they felt this was a normal fight between two girls who had been best friends. Her parents met the teachers and principal, but received no help. In fact, the girls retaliated by becoming more aggressive and attacking Smriti regularly on her way home. 

The final straw was when Muktha and her friends pushed Smriti down the stairs, resulting in multiple fractures and a head injury. A police complaint was lodged and the class teacher was suspended. The school also appointed a counsellor and distributed anti-bullying notice to all students.

This was done more to protect the school.  The bullying did not stop. Sandra Williams, the suspended teacher, admitted that such instances had definitely multiplied threefold or more after the school reopened last year. They all felt it was a passing phase since the children had been virtually under house arrest during the lockdown. Moreover, the focus was on academic catching-up since many students had fallen behind in their studies. Williams is now back, while Smriti and Muktha have shifted to other schools.

A year and a half after regular classes have started, schools and parents are still struggling to cope with multiple behavioural problems, manifesting mostly as bullying and aggression, says Reena Moorthy, headmistress of a new age elite school in southern Bangalore. She adds “It is not that we did not see bullying before 2020. But post the lockdown, we are finding it in many more children, far more frequent and violent.  The underlying reasons too are more now.”

According to teachers and mental health experts, some children who had earlier shown good social behaviour seemed to have become very aggressive while some others have turned excessively meek and submissive after the lockdown.


Read more: What’s the toll COVID is taking on mental health?


What is bullying?

Bullying refers to the actions of an individual or group, in which they repeatedly and intentionally use words or actions against one or more persons which are hurtful and threatening. This could be physical, mental or social. It encompasses rudeness, name-calling, mocking, spreading rumours and offensive remarks, isolating and inducing others to isolate or harm someone (or a group). Bullying can happen either online or offline.

According to Dr Shreya Karthik, a child psychologist at a mental health clinic near Yelahanka, Bengaluru, and counsellor at several schools, the lockdowns during COVID-19 did not only disrupt schooling, socialisation and family life for all, but substantially increased behaviour problems, especially among children.

The most common reason someone turns into a bully is that they themselves were bullied at some time or have witnessed such behaviour. As domestic violence increased significantly during the stressful phases of lockdown, children from such homes too underwent psycho-social changes – either copying such aggression and turning into bullies, or becoming timid and submitting to such abuse.

The COVID impact

Dr Karthik says that the pandemic created a host of factors and situations leading to distress both among adults and children: loss of income, health crises, deaths within the family, loss of support systems like household staff and day care, challenges of unfamiliar work environments, inability to cope with the new demands, challenges of online schooling and work-from-home, uncontrolled addiction to mobile phones and TV.

For teachers, too, it had been a trying time. Not only were they working throughout the lockdown, it was challenging and often involved longer hours since they had to adapt to newer technology and prepare lessons in the new format for online classes. Once school reopened, they found they no longer enjoyed the same rapport that they had with students before the lockdown.

Thus, with parents and teachers themselves going through a variety of stressful circumstances on several fronts, the situation was further aggravated for children.

The trauma of COVID deaths and suicides between 2020 and 2022 also drove several children to consider death and self-harm as a way out of the trauma.

“When Bollywood actor Sushant Singh’s suicide was reported, a number of children felt deeply impacted by it. Many felt that if a ‘hero’ could do it, then it must be okay for them too” says Meera Mhatre, who found her 13-year-old son thinking of suicide as a way out of the bullying he faced at school – online and later offline. She now keeps a hawk’s eye on his whereabouts and moods and tries not to leave him alone, especially during mood swings or exams.

Aggression and violence

Dr Karthik says that many schools have reported increased incidents of extreme bullying, involving physical and verbal abuse, isolating, spreading rumours, humiliating, and threats as serious as gang-rape. In fact, not just schools, but residential layouts too are witness to high levels of bullying among children – particularly in the 7-16 age group.

Saroj Kulshreshta, a high school teacher in a private school near Janpath in Delhi was appalled when parents of two girls complained that a group of five boys from the same class had threated to gang rape them, giving graphic descriptions of an assault similar to the ‘Nirbhaya’ attack.

Fights break out almost every day among students, according to several teachers and parents. One brawl left a student of a school in Chennai’s Nungambakkam hospitalised for at least two days. In an elite school near Delhi, packs of students would barge into classrooms, disrupting lessons and sometimes destroying school property. There were also two incidents of students attacking teachers – something they had not seen before.

“Unmonitored screen time – whether on TV or the phone – saw more children watching extremely violent content and replicating aggressive and abusive behaviour in real life. The impact was far greater among children who had recently acquired access to digital content in an unsupervised environment. Parents busy with new schedules and responsibilities, find themselves unable to maintain constant vigil,” elaborates Saroj.

There is no national data that tracks school fights and assaults, but schools, parents and psychologists specialising in adolescent behaviour say violence is erupting more often and more fiercely, and among younger students.

According to Bangalore-based orthopaedic surgeon Dr S K Santosh, he sees at least three times more cases of bullying-related injuries among children in the 8-16 age group after schools have reopened post lockdown. Some of the injuries have been serious enough for hospitalisation – like injuries to genitals, abdomen and chest, probably from hard kicks or head butts.  

“I see many cases of such targeted violence – not just the kind that could have happened in a spontaneous fight among boys. The hard kicks to genitals, abdomen and chest seem planned, revealing a higher level and greater spread of aggression among schoolboys,” he shares.

Needed: Timely spotting, appropriate intervention

Poster saying 'No to Bullying'
Some schools have set up anti-bullying support systems and periodic counselling, but they function more in theory than actual practice in a majority of schools. Poster by Wilfredo jr Dometita from Pixabay (CC0)

Shreyas’ parents only found out he had been skipping school when the Principal called. He had been bunking school to avoid the bullying by three seniors, that included being beaten, spat on, kicked in the groin, tripped, made to lick shoes and having his schoolbooks destroyed.

While Shreyas’ mother was shocked at his uncharacteristic timidity, so was Anirudh’s mother. Anirudh, Shreyas’ friend since Class 1 at a reputed private school in east Bangalore, an introvert at home, was the gang leader who led the attacks on Shreyas. After every attack, Anirudh says, he felt disgusted with himself and tried to be friendly to Shreyas. But when the gang came together, the bullying was back.

The school finally invited a senior police officer and Dr Karthik to talk to the children about bullying, the consequences to the bully and help available to the bullies and the bullied. The experts also alerted the school and parents how bullying and violence, when ignored, can lead a child to pursue crime as an adult, if not restrained early. And victims of bullying themselves turn bullies.  Complaining to the school or the abusers’ parents often worsened the situation as the bullies lie in wait to ‘take revenge’.

What can you do to address and stop bullying?

Schools and teachers

  • Schools have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for every child. If a child comes to you with a complaint of bullying, take it seriously – do not treat it as a normal part of growing up.
  • If you are part of a school administration, help lay down and disseminate your no-tolerance policy on bullying and the consequences. Define what constitutes bullying clearly.
  • Prominently display names and numbers of people who can be contacted by a victim inside and outside school

Students

  • Draw the attention of teachers, parents or any passers-by if you happen to be bullied or witness it happening.
  • If the situation is not a threat to you, step in and try to stop it; else, get help to stop it.

Parents

  • If you are a parent of the bully, acknowledge the issue instead of being defensive.
  • Talk to your child, explain and get him/her to change their behaviour and resolve the relationship with the victim. Seek professional help from counsellors and behavioural experts if needed.
  • Look out for signs, or any abnormal or sudden changes in behaviour. Bullied children may be afraid to speak out at home too.
  • If it continues and is aggravated violence, report to authorities in school and outside, taking legal help if needed.
  • Take the child – whether bully or bullied – for professional counselling and help, if the behaviour does not change.

According to Lekha Santhosh,  a practising psychologist, she is consulted by a number of parents about severe bullying who want to know how the children should deal with such hostility and violence.


Read more: Schools and families both critical in mental health support for kids and teens


Parents seek help only when it gets out of control, say psychologists and schools. Being a teacher’s favourite, not being good, or being very good in studies and extracurricular activities, not being ‘man enough’ or ‘feminine enough’, too good-looking, too rich, too poor, disability, caste, religion – any of these could be grounds on which bullying happens. Of course, plain dislike is common too.

Bullying often escapes the notice of schools when it happens outside, online or in secluded places in the school. Schools also prefer to brush such incidents under the carpet to avoid media glare, or for fear of such support being discontinued in case they are government-aided schools. Of late, many have set up anti-bullying support systems and periodic counselling, which function more in theory than actual practice in a majority of the schools.

Children, families and teachers are all in this new situation together, each trying to fight these new demons, hoping for a behavioural rollback.  And until they find a way, the long and painful shadows of the lockdowns will stay daunting, especially with a new wave lurking just ahead.

(Names have been changed on request to protect the privacy of children and their families.)

Also read:

Comments:

  1. Sangeeta says:

    Hi Annan, Thankyou for your article. My son is going through a similar situation in a prominent Mumbai school and has been at the receiving end. The school has been unable to do anything so far. And is making more and more difficult for the kids who are unable to stand up for themselves by putting remarks and blames on the child instead of taking action against the bullies. Somewhere we have forgotten how children are meant to be children. If only there could a more wider recognition to this problem, perhaps we could make our schools a safer place for our children.

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