“Lots of good kids bully”
July 11, 2012
Neither bullied nor bullier be.
It’s a good philosophy, but incomplete. So I learned from talking to Faye Mishna about Karen Klein. Mishna researches bullying – cyber bullying in particular – at the University of Toronto. Klein is a 68-year-old bus monitor from Rochester, NY, made famous in a stomach-turning, 10-minute YouTube video of teenage boys intimidating and taunting her crassly, cruelly and mercilessly. They taunt her about her weight, her hearing aid, and most devastatingly, her son’s suicide.
However tempting it might be to write these boys off as monsters or budding psychopaths, Mishna doesn’t believe they can be written off so simply.
“The things they were doing were awful, but we can’t know what these kids are like just based on this video,” she said. In fact, as discomforting as it might be, their behaviour isn’t even that extreme or unusual for a schoolyard or workplace.
“The numbers are too high, the prevalence is too high,” she says. “So many kids bully – lots of good kids bully. Most people agree there should be consequences for those kids, but those consequences should be learning experiences.”
She resists getting too bogged down, though, pondering the mind of someone who bullies. A conversation that only focuses on consequences for the students and charity for Klein misses the bigger picture.
Bullying is not just a binary relationship between perpetrator and victim. Mishna is interested in how other people fit into the puzzle:
“Most bullying happens in front of bystanders. As a bystander, you can either do nothing, which means letting it happen, you can jump in and help the kid who is bullying, or you can protect the kid who is victimized. That’s a huge piece,” she says.
Klein has said in interviews that this was not the first time these kids had bullied her. That makes Mishna wonder whether Klein lacked access to the tools and support she needed to respond.
“If it had happened before, why didn’t she say anything? Maybe she didn’t feel she could say something to anybody,” says Mishna. “If you’re going to have a monitor on the bus, you need the whole system in place.”
What were the other students on the bus doing? What about the bus driver? Did Klein’s employer prepare her for such a situation, and provide avenues for her to seek guidance and support? Peers, authority figures, and support networks all play roles in bullying dynamics.
That’s why merely striving to avoid becoming either the bully or the victim doesn’t necessarily remove you from the equation. And even as Klein’s video became an Internet sensation, bullying itself is also expanding online.
“In cyber bullying, we’re all starting to find that the group of bullies and victims seems to be larger,” she says. “We need to understand that, and what that means.”
One of the things it means is that more people’s lives than ever are touched by bullying in one way or another. For researchers like Mishna, it also means maintaining a focus on the core issues of bullying and anti-bullying – power, humiliation, empathy, social support, education, and public awareness. There’s little point in simply understanding bullying in the context of a single medium – the technology changes too quickly.
“Even three years ago, tips would be ‘put your computer in a public place.’ Well now that’s irrelevant,” she said. “Now kids in grade two have a cell phone and are online.”
She believes that anti-bullying efforts must transcend technology – viral videos and all.
“Research has shown that if a bullied child stands up and says, ‘Don’t do it,’ the bullying stops more quickly. But a kid can’t do that unless they’re supported by a larger system. The child on their own has to be pretty unique to do that without extra support, so all that stuff has to be put in place both in the cyber world and the traditional world.”
As Klein’s story demonstrates, adults without such support also have trouble asserting themselves. The complexity and difficulty of addressing bullying issues can be dispiriting, but Mishna believes change is happening.
“At least we’re addressing these issues now,” she says. “Years ago, people would have said it was just part of life. I don’t’ think it will disappear, but as with child abuse or spousal abuse, I think one of the reasons it seems more prevalent now is because we’re more aware of it. And if it’s in the public consciousness, at least people know they have the right not to be treated that way. That’s a beginning.”
The whole package
Teresa Pitman | September 26, 2014If you’ve ever bought ready-to-eat sushi, you may have noticed a blob of wasabi on the tray. It’s a convenient way to add pungent flavour to your lunch, but it also serves another purpose: it protects your food from micro-organisms. As food science professor Loong-Tak Lim explains, wasabi contains allylisothiocyanate, (AITC) a natural and potent anti-microbial that kills yeast and bacteria. Of course, not every food is enhanced by the strong flavour of wasabi, so Lim has developed a packaging system that offers the same antimicrobial benefits . Lim derives his AITC from ground mustard powder, and uses a patented nanotechnological process to spin tiny fibres that encapsulate the naturally sourced agent in the packaging. “The conventional approach to adding preservatives has been to add them to the food,” says Lim's research colleague Suramya Mihindukulasuriya. “But processing the food may break down the preservative. By having the preservative in the packaging, we don’t need as high a concentration to enhance the shelf-life, safety and quality of the food.” So-called “active packaging,” responds to changes in the environment and the food itself, Lim says. In this case, the membrane responds to a certain level of moisture and releases a preservative to prevent spoiling. Other active packaging materials respond to heat and light. Mihindukulasuriya works with a preservative called hexanal, the volatile organic compound you smell when you cut grass or slice a cucumber. Hexanal helps preserve cell membranes of fruits and vegetables so they don’t become soft or soggy as they ripen. The preservative also has some anti-microbial properties, which are activated by heat and humidity. Mihindukulasuriya calls her technique of enclosing the preservative using ultra-high electrical forces “electrospinning.” Lim jokes that “we are like Spiderman, spinning tiny fibres.” And the fibres are tiny – about 400 times smaller than a human hair. When exposed to humidity or water, these fibres become permeable and release the hexanal. During her PhD studies, Mihindukulasuriya also developed an oxygen indicator that is activated by ultraviolet radiation. When there is little or no oxygen in the package, the indicator is white, but if the package is damaged or torn, allowing oxygen to enter, the indicator turns blue. This matters because oxygen causes rapid deterioration of some foods, and higher levels of oxygen encourage the growth of more micro-organisms. These foods are sealed in vacuum packs or in packages flushed with nitrogen to remove the oxygen, but if the package becomes damaged at some point, oxygen can get inside. That’s where Mihindukulasuriya’s product comes in: a label with a blue line would indicate that the package should not be purchased. What’s next in active and intelligent packaging? Mihindukulasuriya is planning to develop a compound that will detect the volatile compounds produced by food when it spoils and indicate to consumers that the food should not be eaten. The technique would supplement expiry dates, which are only estimates based on typical situations. Not only would such packaging warn people that food had spoiled, it could also reassure them when it was safe to eat – even if the expiry date had passed. “People throw away lots of food that has expired but is still perfectly good to eat,” says Lim. This article was originally published by the University of Guelph. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and style, and is republished here with permission.