Bullying discourse simplifies the problem and blames the children, families and teachers

When discussing school bullying, the problem is simplified, and bullying is thought to arise from the characteristics or difficult family background of the child. According to researchers at the University of Oulu, bullying discourse rarely recognises the importance of societal problems, such as discrimination or the operating culture of individual schools.
Erivärisiä palloja mustalla alustalla, lapsen käsi tarttuu valkoiseen ruksiin.

School bullying is one of the most influential and emotional topics in Finland in recent decades. Although bullying has been studied and attempts have been made to address it for 50 years, it remains a key problem in schools and has a major impact on the lives of children and young people.

“Anti-bullying measures are often targeted at individual children and young people, and the circumstances in which the bullying occurs are overlooked. Highlighting the characteristics or family background of a child may lead to stigmatisation and blaming of pupils and families," says Anne-Mari Väisänen, Doctoral Researcher currently working on a doctoral thesis on the subject.

As anti-bullying measures are insufficient in identifying the problem, they are also ineffective. “The ineffectiveness can be explained by the fact that the experience-based expertise of pupils and teachers is not sufficiently recognised. Instead, blame is placed on both pupils and teachers,” Professor Maija Lanas explains.

Väisänen and Lanas are studying bullying discourse in Finland. They show that bullying research is too narrowly focused. According to them, the focus of bullying discourse on the characteristics, behaviour and control of an individual is currently seen as justified. “In reality, it should be expanded to better take the circumstances and experiential expertise into account,” the researchers say.

The current means to prevent and intervene in bullying are better control of individual children and young people as well as stronger sanctions. “If we look back in time, these methods have not succeeded to curb violence or conflicts between children and young people, but even to aggravate them,” the researchers say.

The discussion on school bullying should therefore be systematically linked to the phenomena that cause social inequalities, and it should be prevented by intervening in inequalities and by increasing well-being. The expertise and experiential knowledge of children, young people and teachers should be taken much better into account when developing the work against bullying.

According to Väisänen and Lanas, much more qualitative, context-conscious research is needed on bullying at school. It is particularly important to consider the perspective of school staff and pupils on the school's social relationships and their challenges.

The study analysed non-fiction and administrative documents on bullying in Finnish schools. It has been funded by the Eudaimonia Institute of the University of Oulu.

Research article (in Finnish): Väisänen, Anne-Mari & Lanas, Maija. 2021. Dekontekstualisaatio kiusaamiskirjallisuudessa. Kasvatus 52 (4), 438–449.

Work (in Finnish): Väisänen, Anne-Mari & Lanas, Maija (2022) Kuinka kiusaamistilanteissa olevista lapsista puhutaan? In M. Lanas & T. Kiilakoski (Eds.), Häiriö? Näkökulmia työrauhan säröihin koulussa. Tampere: Vastapaino. 31–56.

Last updated: 23.2.2023