Key to preventing bullying lies in teaching empathy: expert
Published Friday, April 12, 2013 8:53AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, April 12, 2013 9:05AM EDT
An expert on youth bullying says the suicide death of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons is a tragedy, but the answer to preventing future tragedies doesn’t lie in trying to criminalize all bullying.
Wendy Craig, a Queen's University professor who studies the psychology of bullying, says she thinks the key to preventing bullying is to teach children empathy skills, and about how to speak up when they see wrong behaviour.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Parsons tragedy left him sickened and suggested that perhaps there should be charges laid in some bullying cases.
“What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity,” he told reporters in Calgary. “It is youth criminal activity. It is violent criminal activity. It is sexual criminal activity and it is often Internet criminal activity."
Craig, who co-directs PREVnet, a national anti-bullying strategy, says she’s not sure that bringing criminal charges in many bullying cases is the answer. She says it’s important to remember that the brains of teenagers are not fully developed and they often have trouble anticipating the results of the things they do.
“The brain continues to develop until age 25. Their executive functioning isn’t developed, so they’re often not rational. They can’t think of the consequences of their actions fully,” she told CTV’s Canada AM.
“My concern is that by criminalizing it, we will be giving children records that will be with them, and forever affect the rest of their lives.”
Craig says what children really need is to be taught about empathy, by getting them to do acts of kindness and pro-social behaviour. They also need to learn how to step in when they witness hurtful behaviour.
“What we know is that defending in cyberspace is related to skill like empathy, perspective-taking and a sense of self-efficacy, a sense that I can make a difference in the world and do something good,” she said. “So those are the skills that we need to be promoting.”
She also doesn’t support allowing the hacker group Anonymous to interfere in the matter. The group has said it’s confident it knows the identities of the four boys who allegedly raped Parsons two years ago and have threatened to reveal their identities if authorities do not press charges against the boys. It released a second statement on Thursday, mocking the actions of Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry as well as what it says was the inaction of officials at the Cole Harbour school that Parsons attended.
Craig says what Anonymous is doing is just another form of bullying and she wonders if that’s the message that wants to be sent.
“While I think they’re positively motivated, what they need to be doing is supporting youth who are supporting other youth and getting them to do acts of kindness and pro-social behaviour,” she said.
Craig added that she believes there is still a role for the federal government to play in preventing bullying. Some of that lies in co-ordinating anti-bullying programs and media awareness programs across the country.
The government could also take a role in promoting public awareness campaigns, she says.
“It’s a public health issue and it needs a public health campaign.”