Commentary: What’s behind young people’s violent behaviour?
A video clip showing schoolgirls hurting each other made its rounds on social media recently and the police and the school have said they will deal with it internally. SUSS’ Omer Ali Saifudeen discusses the issue of violence among young people.
SINGAPORE: The video posted of a schoolgirl getting beaten up got me thinking about incidents all of us go through in our school-going years: The playful fighting involving kicking or pulling uniforms, to the “ragging” and emotional bullying that escalates into violence.
When we see a video that shows someone punching or kicking another, it can be quite shocking. This type of behaviour is unexpected, especially when we can see the full extent of any violent or humiliating actions play out.
Every now and then, something of this nature surfaces. In May last year, 28 Ngee Ann Polytechnic students were disciplined by the school for hazing. The incident, which was also filmed and went viral, involved two males kneeling while three others took turns to urinate on them.
This can come as a complete horror to parents who might not even be able to fathom their children are capable of such violent acts and when confronted, may not know how to deal with them.
YOUTH VIOLENCE IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
It is very common for young people to film each other doing silly things – like kicking a trash can or placing a sign on the back of a classmate’s shirt for comic effect. We need to distinguish between acts of mischief which are, by and large, harmless, and those taking a more dangerous form.
While we should let school authorities handle the situation, the case involving the girls doesn’t appear to be a playful encounter in the schoolyard.
There are subtle nuances in the video that create an impression of viciousness and deepens the humiliation of the victim as what transpired is salient and there for all to see, especially when it’s circulated and goes viral.
And yet for every video of bullying put out there, we have all seen many more go quietly under the radar, so it’s hard to have an accurate picture of how serious the situation is.
So just how prevalent is bullying? According to a statement made in May 2021 by Minister of State for Education Sun Xueling, there were two bullying incidents for every 1,000 primary school students, and five bullying incidents for every 1,000 secondary school students.
Acts of violence and aggression do not usually happen overnight. Such a pattern builds up gradually and is often developed after a period of experimentation.
This could also apply to filming small acts, like pulling a prank on a classmate that scares them which soon escalate into more hateful actions like pouring water into their school bag or stealing their homework and getting them into trouble.
The attention one receives when these videos meant to shame go viral or get commented on can feel like a reward.
Psychologist B F Skinner calls this positive reinforcement. He says any behaviour that is rewarded is encouraged and repeated.
Perhaps it starts with one small act of annoyance, followed by intimidating outbursts in incidents of verbal bullying, hazing, or ragging. The aggressor might not even consider this to be violent and instead see it as having fun or being cool.
The look of shock and fear on the victim, the overwhelming sense of power over them, and the fact that one can get away with such actions can create a vicious cycle.
The individual might, after some time, push the limits of aggression a bit more. Soon, the violent behaviour is normalised, and the conditioning prepares one to move onto a higher level of aggression.
According to sociologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza, juveniles use five techniques to justify deviance or even violence: Denial of responsibility (everyone agreed to it), denial of injury (it was just part of the fun, no real harm done), denial of victims (dehumanising the victim by citing how the victim deserved it. Or claiming the victim was willing), appeal to higher loyalties of their group or a leader, and finally “condemnation of the condemners” (pointing out the hypocrisies or flaws of those criticising).
HELPING YOUNG PEOPLE DEAL WITH VIOLENT TENDENCIES
What then can be done to pre-empt such behaviours? I would argue stemming such behaviours must begin at home. Perhaps it starts with parents recognising kids might have a whole other life outside of family.
They could put up a smiling, angelic face at home, and but in other social situations show a completely different persona. Youths have multiple identities and as digital natives, can tend to lead a separate existence outside of the physical home.
Teachers can be allies whose perspectives on how your teenager is doing should be listened to. They should be relied on to surface weak signals and call to a parent’s attention when small mean acts start becoming a pattern that needs attention.
Intervention at timely moments could nip the problem at the onset before a child turns into a teenage terror.
But will kids listen? It really depends on how parents handle the situation. Robert Havighurst in his book, Human Development and Education promoted the idea of a “teachable moment” when a child may be more receptive to listening.
A young child tends to act out in anger, by shoving, kicking or punching. All parents can do in the moment is to ensure their safety and others around them, remove or confine them until their energy wears out. Not much “teaching” on correct behaviours can be done here.
But wait for an opportunity to demonstrate why such behaviour is wrong. Perhaps when watching a movie where such behaviour causes someone to get hurt or seeing another child behave this way are good “teachable” moments to talk about it – with the benefit of distance so that the child doesn’t feel singled out and shamed.
Often, the gravity of their behaviour only sinks in when viewed from an outside perspective. This requires effort and patience.
Parents must intervene at the first signs of trouble when early forms of violence manifest and not assume that it’s a one-off occurrence or it will sort itself out. A conversation at the right time that tries to understand why they justify such actions and getting them to see it from the perspective of the victim can be a make-or-break moment.
In schools, this idea can be adapted to educating youth who might view bullying and violence as acceptable forms of behaviour and just part of the “fun”. They need to be reminded that bullying and shaming can be a form of “violence”.
Sociologist Johan Galtung’s gave a broader understanding of violence that includes intimidation, discrimination and shaming.
It’s important that when teachers reach out to parents that they do not refrain from downplaying their suspicion and view fights as simply playful squabbles that are not worth overreacting to. Some are also afraid that disciplining their children will drive them away.
Or over-react and fly into a blind rage, driving the child away further.
ADDRESSING DEVIANCE BY STARTING A CONVERSATION
Gresham Sykes and David Matza cite how youths drift in and out of such deviance at moments when social controls like the presence of a watchful guardian or other forms of monitoring and sanctioning weaken.
To counter these forces, many sources of healthy influence can help shape a teenager’s attitudes and values – through someone they trust, relate and look up to but promotes positive values. This can come in the form of a peer, buddy or any responsible adult the student respects.
Media literacy too should address all forms of violence – words, deeds, physical and emotional. I hope the recent episode offers an example for a conversation parents and teachers can have with students, explaining how bullying and filming acts that shame someone is a form of violence too.
Dr Omer Ali Saifudeen is a sociologist and Senior Lecturer, Public Safety and Security Programme, at the School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, Singapore University of Social Sciences.