There is nothing new about bullying. Years ago, it took the form of an odd punch or verbal attack, usually in the school playground. If it was far from harmless, it was hardly of cancerous proportion. The rise of social media has changed all that, creating a bigger and more frightening platform for bullies and enhancing the prospects of a deadly outcome.
Sadly, some of this country's young have eagerly grasped the possibilities, while not eschewing more traditional forms of bullying. The upshot according to one survey of 9-year-olds in 35 countries is that three-quarters of New Zealand students suffered a form of bullying in the previous month, a figure higher than any other nation except Tunisia.
That finding provided the relevant context for this week's Herald series on bullying. In itself, it suggested this country's response to the problem has been inadequate. As much was confirmed by articles which found, for example, that New Zealand schools have been laxer than their Australian counterparts in developing specific anti-bullying policies.
It fell to Ombudsman David McGee, in a report last year on bullying at Hutt Valley High School, to state the obvious; that it should be compulsory for every school to implement such a programme.
The existence of these will not, in themselves, be a guarantee a school is dealing effectively with bullying. Many policies are undoubtedly full of platitudes about bullying being utterly unacceptable and pupils being empowered to talk to their teachers or the principal.
But they may be enacted without energy and enthusiasm, in the belief that bullying is somehow a natural part of growing up or that the situation will work itself out. So arises a climate of fear and disrespect that, at the very least, undermines the ability of victims to reach their full potential.
It has become untenable to underestimate the seriousness of bullying. Whereas the playground punch hurt once, postings on YouTube or Facebook cause repeated suffering. So much so that the Chief Coroner sees cyber-bullying as a factor in New Zealand's high rate of youth suicide, and wants the law changed to crack down on it. Given the inadequate response of many schools and the parents of many victims, it is little wonder that helplines are being flooded with bullying-related calls.
The Government has indicated its awareness of the problem, if not, perhaps, its extent or the urgent need to address it. Last year, the Prime Minister called for a "national conversation" on how to reduce bullying, and the Education Minister at the time, Anne Tolley reminded schools of their responsibility to provide safe environments. But the only substantial response so far has been the allocation of an extra $62 million over four years for youth mental health projects, including more school nurses and youth workers.
More needs to be done. Every school should be required and resourced to implement an anti-bullying programme. This could be monitored relatively easily. The number of pupils who ask for help would be a reasonable gauge of initial effectiveness, as would the evidence provided by social media.
Greater co-operation between schools and parents is also important, as is parental appreciation of the signs that suggest their child may be being bullied. Heightened awareness of the problem is a good first step. The next, and more complex, is to create an environment in which everyone is respected and appreciated.