Class 9 student Devyani Ahuja, 14, fell out with a popular girl at school who wanted her to tell the teacher she had forgotten her homework just because Ms Popular hadn’t done hers. Ahuja refused and the two stopped talking.
Over the next few days, Ahuja noticed that Ms Popular was not the only one shunning her. Most students had started behaving differently with her.
Finally, someone told her there were stories about her sexting other girls, which made them think she was weird. Samples of smutty texts she had supposedly sent had gone viral in her school, which made her notorious overnight.
Ahuja’s parents eventually noticed something was wrong when she became quiet and withdrawn. “After several days of cajoling, Devyani showed me some smutty texts she’d supposedly sent others. She was devastated,” says her mother Ambika Ahuja, an advertising executive in Gurgaon.
“Isolation, verbal assault and malicious rumours are far more common than physical abuse. The fear of social exclusion is the biggest threat in an adolescent’s and young adult’s life,” says Dr Samir Parikh, head of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare.
Unlike physical abuse, verbal trolling and social exclusion are often not taken seriously by adults. “I felt that the hardest part of being bullied was getting help. People, including even my own father and mother, would say things like ‘get over it’,” said Lee Hirsch, the director of the critically acclaimed documentary Bully.
With bullying and ragging becoming institutionalised in schools and colleges, most people have seen it in more than one form of childhood malice. Add to this cyberbullying — intimidating, offending or embarrassing others using smartphones, personal digital assistants and social media networks - and you have a malice machine that excludes the adult world.
“Social networking makes it even more pervasive,” says Dr Rajesh Sagar, associate professor of psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Globally, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace were most widely reported platforms of abuse. Bullying can cause clinical symptoms of depression, insomnia, low self-worth and weight gain, sometimes years after being traumatised.
In India, three of 10 parents said their children were victims of cyberbullying, mostly through social networking sites, found an online global poll this year done by Ipsos, a global market research company late last year. The poll in 24 countries showed cyberbullying was higher in India than in western countries.
Children bullied early on are up to three times more likely to self-harm — described as cutting or biting arms, pulling out clumps of hair, banging the head against walls or attempting suicide — than their classmates when they reach adolescence, reported a study in the British Medical Journal. The research also showed that victimised children grew up emotional distressed.
Adults need to make children understand that in the real world, baiting or beating up an opponent, both virtually or real, does not solve the problem. Factoring in the human cost of violence — pain, sadness, suffering and loss — also helps children step out of the Tom-and-Jerry state of mind.
The bully doesn’t escape unscathed either. “Children who are on their own a lot without adult supervision are more likely bully to assert themselves socially, just as an isolated child is more likely to become a victim of bullying both online and offline,’ says Dr Parikh.
It’s not just children alone who are bullied. Bullying in offices — uncivil behaviour, such as humiliating colleagues or publicly ignoring them — is common, more so in offices with poor job security and lack of trust between colleagues. Apart from lowering productivity, motivation and job satisfaction, verbal abuse at work causes depression, insomnia as well as alcohol and drug abuse.