Samoa's bullying crisis demands education

It is rare indeed that Samoa ranks first in the world in any field. This week we did but in the most shameful way.

A story carried on the front page of Monday’s Samoa Observer (“Samoan adolescents world's most bullied: study”) revealed an uncomfortable and seldom discussed truth about life in our nation’s schools. 

A study of 300,000 students across 83 countries found that our adolescents were the world’s most bullied. The results, published in a sister publication of the world’s most prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, found 79 per cent of Samoan boys and 70 per cent of Samoan girls reported having been victims of bullying in the past month.

That was the highest rate of bullying recorded among any country surveyed; Samoan children were being bullied at ten times the rate of the country in which bullying was least prevalent, Tajikistan. 

The digital age has made bullying a much more diffuse and complicated phenomenon than it was for generations of children in years gone by. 

Where once differences were settled quickly, after-school and with fisticuffs, the advent of social media has made bullying much more insidious, affecting and difficult to monitor. 

It now takes place outside school boundaries more often than not and through use of ephemeral platforms such as Snapchat and Tik Tok on which evidence of bad behaviour vanishes. 

These new online domains can also cloak taunts in anonymity and lead to large-scale pile on behaviour.

The majority of teachers are simply not familiar with the workings of these social networks; the traditional model of policing bullies and monitoring the effects of bullying and offering pastoral care to its victims is no longer adequate.

The education and training we provide to teachers and students alike to deal with bullying must change with the times.

Some skeptics of the study have questioned the degree to which international comparisons can be reliably made of something so subjective as feeling victimised. 

These questions are understandable. 

What constitutes ‘bullying’ will vary greatly across more than 80 countries. 

But the definitions used in this study were provided by students themselves, who reported how often they had been made to feel bullied. 

But even if we were to assume the research double counted the number of students being bullied we would still be confronting a school system in the grip of a crisis. 

In Europe on average only 8 per cent of students were made to feel like victims in the school yard in the past month. For Samoan students to feel like victims at a rate so disproportionate to their international peers is simply not acceptable. 

As bullying has become more pervasive its effects have become more serious, too.

Longitudinal research into children who are the targets of bullying shows that they end up being less likely to be employed, more likely to have failed marriages and more likely to struggle with mental health problems.

Confronting a problem of this scale will not be easy. It will require an entirely new definition of what we consider to be core to a complete education. 

Alongside skills such mathematics, science and English room should be made for lessons on empathy, emotional intelligence, respectful communication and conflict resolution. 

In an age where the most trivial digital trace can linger online for eternity and the physical distance between people and their conversational partners gives ready rise to uncivil discourse, learning about the dynamics of  online communication is particularly important. 

A Finnish programme, KiVa, has successfully made learning about empathy an integral part of the early high-school curriculum and been exported with success to several countries including as far afield as New Zealand. 

It’s past time that we brought a new approach into our own classrooms. 

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