Tackling Hong Kong’s Bullying and Suicide Crises

Hong Kong is one of the worst places in the world when it comes to instances of bullying. Experts from CityU are at the forefront of research on the topic and have solutions that could help save lives

Hong Kong children are some of the most electronically connected kids in the world. However, unlimited access to technology is not always a good thing.

Professor Dennis Wong Sing-wing has authored numerous books on bullying.

Bullying has taken place at schools for hundreds of years, says Professor Dennis Wong Sing-wing, but it is not always easy to pinpoint clear-cut examples.

Associating bullying solely with aggressive behaviour oversimplifies the problem, says Dr Annis Fung Lai-chu.

Dr Sylvia Kwok Lai Yuk-ching believes that children who are blamed by parents for their own problems can “explode”, and will lash out at others or attempt suicide.

Childhood bullying is one of the most serious and overlooked problems facing Hong Kong today. So say faculty members of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS), City University of Hong Kong (CityU). Fortunately, those academics, who have conducted much of the most important research on the subject in Hong Kong, have shared their ideas on how the city’s parents, teachers and the government can work together to combat the matter.

Identifying the problem

Bullying can be surprisingly difficult to define. CLASS criminology expert Professor Dennis WONG Sing-wing defines bullying as repeated acts of aggression by a person in a position of power with the intent to harm the victim. “This has always been the most traditional form of bullying, and it has existed in schools for hundreds of years,” Wong says.

Wong admits that it can be difficult to pinpoint clear-cut cases of bullying using this definition. After all, what counts as an act of aggression? How do we determine who is in a position of power? And how many times must hostile acts be repeated for them to constitute as bullying?

Associate Professor and bullying research specialist Dr Annis FUNG Lai-chu prefers a revised version of the traditional bullying model. “Typically, when one talks about bullying, people instantly associate the one with aggressive behaviour as the bully, which is oversimplified and misleading,” she says. “The fact is, bullying is definitely more complicated.”

Fung separates aggressors into two main archetypes – the proactive and the reactive aggressor.

Proactive aggressors are the ones we would typically identify as bullies and are prone to lashing out unprovoked. Reactive aggression, on the other hand, is defined as a “defensive reaction” to a real or perceived provocation. In some cases, children extremely prone to reactive aggression may feel like victims of bullying, even when they aren’t being bullied at all. Using this analysis, bullying can be considered a far more complicated topic than many people realise.

Bullying in Hong Kong

There is a very strong correlation between people who show signs of proactive aggression from a young age, and murderers. So this is a very serious problem that needs to be addressed

Dr Annis Fung Lai-chu

Fung’s research indicates that the bullying situation in Hong Kong is not just bad, it is “the worst in the world”.

“In a 2017 worldwide survey of 540,000 schoolchildren, the Programme for International Students Assessment, Hong Kong was ranked the worst for school bullying amongst 72 countries and regions,” Fung says.

The survey found that 32.3 per cent of Hong Kong students reported being victims of bullying – three times higher than that of Taiwan and nearly double that of the United States.

Fung believes that the reason bullying is so pervasive in Hong Kong is due to the alarmingly high number of reactive aggressors. These types of children are prone to several negative characteristics such as low self-esteem, anger management issues, impulsivity and poor social skills.

“Reactive aggressors are usually overlooked when it comes to bullying,” Fung states. “For both types of aggressors, poor parenting is often to blame. However, reactive aggression is more common in low-income families, and proactive aggression is more common in students from wealthier families.”

Fung’s research also indicates that proactive aggressors are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses like narcissism and psychopathic disorder – both of which are likely to lead to criminal behaviour.

“There is a very strong correlation between people who show signs of proactive aggression from a young age, and murderers,” claims Fung. “So this is a very serious problem Dr Annis Fung Lai-chu that needs to be addressed.”

The rise of cyber-bullying

It is not just traditional workplace or classroom bullying that is a problem anymore either. Modern technology has given rise to an entirely new form of aggression: cyber-bullying, a phenomenon which Wong has researched extensively.

“We have traditional forms of bullying, which can involve violence or name-calling in schools,” Wong explains. “This is still a very serious problem in Hong Kong. But nowadays, with so many kids being addicted to their mobile phones, cyberbullying might be even more common.”

When most people think of cyber-bullying, they usually imagine widespread public humiliation on social media platforms like Facebook. But Wong says this is actually an extreme example and that the majority of cyber-bullying is in fact much more subtle.

“A lot of cyber-bullying can take place on group chats on apps like WhatsApp and WeChat,” he explains. “It can range from starting rumours, to deliberately excluding [victims] from activities to make them feel like outcasts. These types of bullying are actually very serious, as they can make the victims feel lonely, frustrated, depressed, and afraid.”

When it comes to cyber-bullying, Wong says no platform is safe. Whether it is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or a new platform that has not been invented yet, each of these platforms can include bullying on a scale never seen before. “It is extremely important for parents and teachers to learn more about the different types of cyber-bullying, in order to protect their children,” Wong says.

It is hardly a secret that children are increasingly addicted to smartphones and social media and, unfortunately, things only seem to be getting worse. Wong says these developments have led to an increased prevalence in cyberbullying. “Research has shown that the more involved a child is with online activities, the more likely he or she is to be involved with cyber-bullying; either as a perpetrator or a victim,” he says. “If you are always browsing social media, then it becomes your entire world, and you are more likely to become a victim of some form of cyber-bullying.”

Effects of bullying: suicide

Bullying can have a number of effects on the abused. At its worst, it can drive a person to suicide. Worryingly, Hong Kong has an alarmingly high number of suicide attempts among young people. “Our research has shown that Hong Kong has a very high number of children with suicidal potential – about 25 per cent of primary school students and 29 per cent of secondary students last year,” explains Associate Professor Dr Sylvia KWOK LAI Yuk-ching, who worked as a social worker for many years before joining CityU. “Although these numbers are lower than in previous years, there is still a lot of work to be done.”

The importance of parenting

Schoolwork and peer relationships can also play a role, but research has shown that parenting styles, and whether the parents have mental health or marital problems, play the biggest part in youth suicide

Dr Sylvia Kwok Lai Yuk-ching

Given its seeming ubiquity, what can be done to combat bullying? All three experts are in agreement that parenting plays arguably the most important role in youth behavioural problems – be it bullying, suicide or other issues.

“Schoolwork and peer relationships can also play a role, but research has shown that parenting styles, and whether the parents have mental health or marital problems, play the biggest part in youth suicide,” Kwok explains. “If parents have their own mental or marital problems, they will often scapegoat the child, or in other words, blame the child for their own problems. This leads to many types of emotional problems for the children.”

Kwok says that when children face this type of abuse from parents, they often suppress their negative emotions and “explode” either by attempting suicide or by acting extremely aggressively towards their peers. In fact, poor parenting has been shown to be one of the leading factors in bullying.

Positive education

Kwok, who is the convenor of the Positive Education Laboratory, believes another effective way to combat bullying, as well as improve children’s overall mental health, is through “positive education”, which involves teaching children the importance of attributes like gratitude and positive thinking.

She has implemented a positive education curriculum in dozens of primary schools across Hong Kong. This curriculum is based on six virtues of character strength: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, temperance, transcendence, and justice. “On this foundation, we aim to build up children’s positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, life meaning, and also a sense of accomplishment,” says Kwok. “This will allow them to live a more flourishing life.”

Kwok states that it is her “mission” to get Hong Kong schools to adopt positive education as part of the self-development curriculum. She is currently lobbying for more government support. “We have mathematics, science, languages as core subjects but we believe that positive education is equally, if not more important than other subjects,” Kwok argues. “But in fact, many primary schools have partnered with us and started adopting this curriculum and they have seen significant results.

Tackling online addiction

Wong believes parents and teachers must do a better job of educating children about the dangers of cyber-bullying and potentially dangerous online activities, while also limiting the amount of time their children are on the Internet. “Some kids spend a lot of time online, but they use the Internet to learn new things,” Wong says. “In that way, being online can be absolutely amazing for young people. But if kids are going online just for entertainment or for gossip and social media, it’s not good for their mental health, and we find it’s usually these kids that fall victim to cyber-bullying.”

Wong is convinced this explains Hong Kong youngsters’ declining physical health as online addiction has resulted in a waning interest in sports and outdoor activities. A lack of exercise can result in further mental health problems, which, in a vicious cycle, can lead to more instances of cyber-bullying.

The solutions Wong and his team have proposed is to urge parents against letting their children have unlimited access to technology from such an early age, and to instead encourage them to live fit, active lifestyles.

“You see it all the time at restaurants, the adults are tired from work and don’t have the energy to talk to their children, so they let them play on their iPads for the entire dinner,” Wong says. “That is just poor parenting.” He points out that the more healthy hobbies a child has, the less likely he or she is to fall victim to cyber-bullying and online addictions.

“If I were [the parents], I would take them swimming. I would take them cycling. I would take them hiking; maybe travelling. The more healthy substitutes the children have for cyber-space and the happier the children are with their parents, the less they will feel the need to spend all of their free time online,” says Wong.

Fung concurs that physical activity is a must, before adding that a sensible diet and dietary supplements like omega 3 fatty acids can also be useful tools in tackling mental illness.

Removing the stigma

For a final step in dealing with this problem, Fung insists that removing the stigma surrounding mental illness in Hong Kong is a must. Doing so would allow both proactive and reactive aggressors to get the treatment they need, whether it is through medication, therapy or both. This goes for parents as well as students. And if the mental health of Hongkongers improves, incidences of bullying and suicide will certainly decline, saving many lives.