MICHAEL D. BREEN. Bullying Documentary on ABC Television March 14 & 21

Mar 31, 2017

Bullying is an epidemic. Bullying is a complex social matter. Systemic problems need systemic remedies. There is a wealth of international research available. Good will and enthusiasm are insufficient treatment qualifications; even if the presenter is a national good guy. Is it acceptable to test drive a dubious procedural treatment on T.V.? Would it be acceptable for an unproven surgical procedure?

If the ABC is to ask vulnerable individuals to be interviewed about personal and family sufferings, producers need to be able to justify that the repeated pain is worth it. Otherwise suffering is increased and informed viewers squirm.  

“Bullied” an ABC documentary was shown recently. The context is clear. There is a lot of bullying. The cultural context is also clear. Led by public figures and their practice of playing the person instead of the issue in parliament or on the football field adds to the social permissiveness of bullying. So there is helplessness around the issue and a hunger for anything, which looks helpful. Cynically you could say it is a seller’s market. The programme in question came from a Dutch franchise format, Skyhigh T.V. They brag about the great value of the programme. I have not seen any serious evaluation of their services.
But it is the structure and the processes of the programme bother me most.
Firstly, the victim, though the hero or heroine of the show and their family are put under the spotlight and required to share vulnerabilities unnecessarily. Teachers and principals much less so.
Secondly, bullying is a legal matter which is the responsibility of the police or the school authorities. While all the spectacular footage is being developed the bullies are still at large. Their drives to bully, their family backgrounds, their history as possible former victims and their culpability are not addressed. This to me seems an exploratory moral/legal lapse and a lapse in treating the bullies’ pathology.
Thirdly, there is an announced norm of ‘not being judgmental’. However if that is so there ought also be a forum for actual judgment somewhere else as a balance of fairness and justice.
Fourthly, there is confusion as to who owns the problem; school, victim, education department (teachers said they were understaffed/busy) or the parents? When this is the case it is evident that it is a ‘systemic problem’. To solve these kinds of problems there needs to be attention to all elements of the system. So an injudicious, non-systemic intervention can make the problem worse.
Considering the two problems examined in the documentary one could argue that both situations were made worse.
Fifthly, the outcome announced in the case of Chloe was that there would be a student group, a sort of personal security squad, to protect her. Scant attention was there to other current or potential victims and their problems. The result was what is called the “Drama Triangle” of victim, persecutor and rescuer. The roles in this situation go round and round without resolution.
Sixthly, the first case of Kelsey was a manifest failure. And a student in the second group discussion mentioned this failure. “Move schools”. This strategy is a kind of reverse of the complaint against administrators of paedophiles who absolved themselves of solving the problem by moving the perpetrator. Imagine if in such cases Bishops has suggested moving the victim to another parish.
Seventhly, there is a host of literature and research on bullying. So much so that in Europe and the USA there is a lucrative industry turning out programmes for schools. One Swedish study reviewed the various courses. “Lessons From a Concurrent Evaluation of Eight Antibullying Programs Used in Sweden”. Erik Flygare, Peter Edward Gill, Bjorn Johannsson. 2013.
Finally, Ian Thorpe is obviously a decent guy. He is popular. He is compassionate, socially aware and a kind of activist. However his major training and success seems to be as a swimmer. He could be a good commentator but without years of training and supervision should he be considered a therapeutic facilitator or case manager?

This documentary seems to be an attempt at exploratory education. I consider the flaws in the programme are serious. Even if oxymoronic ‘Reality TV’ is a current indoor blood sport the material here is far deeper than entertainment.

If we are to initiate good solutions to community problems we need to choose proven and evaluated programmes to deal with this current .systemic social problem. We do not need to reinvent the international professional wheel. Making a documentary about such matters is a separate issue from the management of the problem or its eradication.

Michael D. Breen is a humanistic educational psychologist. He lives in the southern Highlands of NSW.  

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