Over the past decade, the prevalence of instant messaging services has made making and maintaining friendships easier than ever. We are all constantly reachable, with snap maps and active statuses opening us up to scrutiny in a way that has never been seen before.
The evolution of technology in this way has brought a new meaning to the word “bullying”, as the ability to humiliate and to be humiliated publicly has evolved alongside it. But this unfortunate societal phenomenon existed long before Snapchat and anonymous question sites – bullies just used more complex techniques.
American sitcoms, British soaps and most teenage dramas present bullying as an unavoidable part of the school experience. Either you are bullied, or you are the bully. But the image of the bespectacled, nerdy, acne-prone bookworm being pushed and shoved in a high school corridor is a cliche that comes nowhere near representing this all-too-common experience.
Never have I seen an accurate portrayal of the eight-year-old girl being craftily manipulated into thinking she finally has friends, only to overhear the same person mocking her voice behind her back. The girl who was invited on group play-dates only to have playroom doors forced shut in her face. The image of the girl who dreaded swimming lessons – not just because she didn’t like swimming, but because she knew she wouldn’t have somebody to sit beside on the bus. Or her mother’s heartbreaking offer of a new MP3 player to replace a travel buddy on these journeys. The girl whose name was never scratched in pink gel pen ink in a hardback Christmas annual under the title “best friend”.
The isolated feeling of having nobody to play with at lunchtime is sometimes replicated through declined coffee invitations
Child bullies come in different forms. They are to be found under the most unsuspecting of guises. Look beyond the badly behaved “messer” type. It takes calculated planning and forethought to chip away at a child’s self-confidence and self-worth in this way. A master manipulator will avoid overt displays of intimidation, focusing instead on tormenting their chosen victim through isolation, while silently persuading their peers to join in. They win when they have successfully forced this person to the edge of the playground, all the while maintaining their trademark butter-wouldn’t-melt image.
Unfortunately, this kind of experience never leaves you completely. The isolated feeling of having nobody to play with at lunchtime is sometimes replicated through declined coffee invitations, unsuccessful jokes or even the little empty blue “read” triangle on Snapchat. Every new social situation, from joining a new society to getting a new job, creates a myriad of worries. What if they think I’m boring, or, even worse, that I’m not funny? It is almost as if having a loud personality and an even louder sense of humour are all you need to make friends.
“Are you free this evening? If you bring a bottle of wine I’ll make you dinner. I’d love to see you!” An innocuous message, one might think. But to someone whose childhood was marred by the absence of true friendship, this message is more than just a happenstance invitation. It is proof that I have beaten the odds, that I have successfully convinced someone that I am worthy of their time. I see every party invitation, spontaneous night-out or inside joke with friends as a silent victory over the person who for so long made me believe it was my fault that I wasn’t liked, and that I had some innate unpleasant trait that would render me incapable of ever making real friends.
Many late nights spent over games of Risk and pots of tea allowed me to slowly learn how comforting it is to trust, and how nice it is to be trusted
Childhood bullying is a problem that extends far beyond just the physical. Emotional manipulation is widespread and can begin far earlier than secondary school. It is a parent’s responsibility to look out for the signs, not just of bullying in their child, but bullying by their child. Receptive parenting is the most valuable resource in putting an early stop to toxic bullying behaviour, but benefitting from it is easier said than done. Bullying should not be inevitable, and experiencing it is certainly not a box to be ticked in the checklist of becoming a well-rounded person.
Seven years later, and that girl is almost unrecognisable. Falling into such a comfortable, welcoming and supportive group of friends almost straight away in first year was a happy twist of fate. Many late nights spent over games of Risk and pots of tea allowed me to slowly learn how comforting it is to trust, and how nice it is to be trusted. I have been known to command a room with tales of the clumsily awkward social interactions I seem to encounter on an almost daily basis. I still love garishly coloured clothes and reading up about obscure central-Asian countries. The parts of me that I once blamed for my “weirdness” are now my secret tools in endearing myself to new friends.
One person’s toxic behaviour may have cost me many of the hallmarks of an idyllic primary school experience, but I hope that person will one day know that it is a loss for which I have since compensated. If my fashion sense or clumsy sense of humour make me “weird”, then weird I will happily remain.