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School Bullying . . . What we know and what we can do

Press release issued: 4 February 2004

A computer-based solution to the threat of school bullying has gone on show to an audience of teachers in Bristol.

A computer-based solution to the threat of school bullying has gone on show to an audience of teachers in Bristol.

Working together, psychologists and computer scientists have designed a virtual reality school where in a safe and engaging virtual drama, children encounter the bullies and work out how to deal with them - without getting into trouble themselves.

The virtual bully Luke and his victim John are among a cast of synthetic 3D characters in the 1.6 million Euro project VICTEC* aimed at helping pupils aged between 8 and 12. 

Professor Dieter Wolke from Bristol’s Children of the 90s project and his colleague Sarah Woods from the University of Hertfordshire will be demonstrating the programme to a hundred-plus teachers from Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire as part of his lecture School Bullying . . What we know and what we can do.

As professor of Lifespan Psychology and Deputy Director of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) Professor Wolke has published extensive research on bullying and children’s relationships.

He found that a third of primary school children experienced frequent victimisation and that seven per cent of children admitted to bullying other children on a regular basis – experiences that sometimes start preschool.    But he says it is important to distinguish between bullying and occasional conflict.

“All children have conflicts with other children sometimes. Conflicts are normal and provide opportunities to learn how to negotiate and deal with other people.  Bullying is different from occasional conflicts.

“Being victimised refers to a child repeatedly subjected to acts of physical or verbal aggression with the intention to hurt. The victim is usually weaker and bullying is often carried out by a group of children or a single child with an audience.”

“When asked about bullying we often think of being beaten or verbally abused. However, there are also subtle forms of bullying that hurt as much but are difficult to detect by others: relational aggression or the systematic exclusion from peers (“you can’t play with us” or spreading of rumours).”

The new virtual bullying programme has been developed by scientists from Britain, Germany and Portugal working on VICTEC  – Virtual Information, Computers and Technology with Empathetic Characters.

In a virtual environment somewhere between a computer game and a real-life drama, children will be able to follow various characters as they go through bullying scenarios and advise them on the best course of action.

The idea is to give schoolchildren a better grasp of why bullies, victims, and bystanders act the way they do.  The designers want children using the system to feel empathy towards the characters involved in a bullying story and to take responsibility for the actions that take place.

Sarah Woods says that sometimes the bully might come out on top.  Unlike conventional computer games  - where the eventual outcome is pre-scripted - the VICTEC stories are based on the emergent narrative principle.  What happens next will depend on the characters’ decisions , whether, for instance, they stand up to the bully or tell a teacher.

The full programme will be tested on 400 primary school children in June 2004 before it can be made available to schools later in the year, possibly as part of the Personal. Health and Social Education curriculum.

Professor Wolke says: “If children can play out different alternatives of how to deal with bullying safely in a virtual school this is likely to benefit them in real life”

“We will never be able to totally root out bullying but we hope we can make the lives of many pupils much better.”

ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol.  It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed the children and parents in minute detail ever since. 
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