Peers and Bullying: Tattling vs Telling

Research indicates that at least 80% of bullying episodes go unreported. Some bystanders either fear the bully’s power or want to avoid being labeled a “tattle-tale”. A 2005 report by Debra Pepler, from York University’s LaMarsh Centre, indicates that 85% of bullying episodes are witnessed by other students. It also reveals that three-quarters of the time, the witnesses contribute to the actions of the students who bully. That dynamic, coupled with the belief by about 50% of students that nothing effective would be done even if they did report a bullying episode, helps to explain why bystanders are so reluctant to intervene.

Although peers intervene infrequently, when they do intervene, their actions are highly effective.

Safe Telling

Interrupting bullying is ultimately effective when students know they can talk about such problems safely with peers and adults. One of the most powerful aspects of bullying — and all forms of aggression — is secrecy. Students who bully others force those they target, as well as bystanders, to keep the bullying a secret, with threats of retaliation should anyone tell. This code of silence allows bullying to become further entrenched. This is one of the most important reasons why very few students ever tell adults when they experience or witness bullying.

Creating a trained and committed community of supportive adults at school and in the community-at-large that is recognized by and easily accessible to the students is essential to breaking the cycle of any form of violence, including bullying. To accomplish this, adults need to develop a range of skills and strategies, and collaborate over a sustained period of time, to assure students that
supportive adults are listening and will take action.

Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge and honour the risk students take when they tell adults about a bullying situation. Respecting students’ confidentiality and guarding their anonymity (wherever possible) is pivotal to creating a safe environment for telling and thus breaking the code of secrecy. However, if the situation is potentially dangerous, it may be necessary to intervene,
to consult or to involve co-workers, the administration, school board support staff or child welfare services — even if the student asks you not to.

This often creates a dilemma, since teachers want to facilitate the conditions of empowerment by fully respecting the choices of students seeking help. Such an approach is particularly important when responding to students who have experienced feelings of powerlessness through bullying. There are many ways to communicate this respect, however, by maximizing choices and ensuring that the student has as much control in dealing with the situation as possible.

For example, whenever possible, we can:

  • inform the student before the fact, when we need to tell
    someone else about the situation;
  • involve the student in choosing whom we will consult or tell;
  • involve the student in the timing of telling others; and
  • offer to be there with the student when transferring them to help of some kind — with older teens this might
    include the police, or a crisis line.

The Ethics of Telling: Youth Culture

Fear of being accused of “ratting” or labelled a “snitch” is a significant component of teen culture. Schools need to work consistently and comprehensively (individually, in classrooms and other group settings, as well as systemically) to gain students’ trust and ensure safety for those who disclose.

An important key to this entails student access to respectful and reliable adult recourse for students who are both witnessing or experiencing bullying. It is worthwhile reminding students that those who bully may seem very powerful, but in fact, those who see bullying in a negative light are actually the majority of us — young and old.

For this reason, encouraging students to take action together, with others who feel the same way, is typically more effective than expecting those who are fearful to come forward individually.

We strongly encourage teachers to help foster peer support within our schools — a strategy we adults often forget about or minimize, in spite of our recognition of the importance of peers in the lives of students.

Even with effective peer support, students will still need the active support of adults and of the school system in order to effect change.

Tattling Vs. Telling: Child Culture

Younger students are discouraged from “tattling” by their peers and sometimes by adults. The same comprehensive changes in school culture that are needed at the secondary level to reduce and prevent bullying are necessary to encourage elementary school children to seek adult help when they cannot resolve a bullying situation on their own.

The following definition can enable students and adults to differentiate between tattling and telling to get help.