My daughter is bullied in primary school – is her lack of a smartphone to blame?

The phones aren’t the issue here – they just extend the bullies’ reach. Despite your daughter’s reluctance to talk to her Hong Kong teachers about the problem, this needs to be nipped in the bud

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2016, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2016, 1:02pm

My daughter is in Primary Six and is upset that friends are phone messaging hurtful comments about her. She used to enjoy school but has become withdrawn. I want her to talk to the teacher but she is reluctant. She seems to be the only girl in her peer group who doesn’t take a smartphone to school. I think she’s too young and I don’t think primary schools should allow them.

More and more children in Hong Kong seem to own smartphones at a young age. Many primary schools strongly discourage or ban pupils from taking phones to school, but in reality it’s very hard to police, and many pupils sneak them into their bags.

There is huge peer pressure for children to get a phone once their friends own one. They in turn put pressure on their parents, who don’t want to see their child unhappy or left out, whatever their beliefs about the appropriate age to own one.

Some primary students are already on social media, having lied about their age, with or without their parents’ knowledge.

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Cyber bullying is now topping the list of issues reportedly taking up teachers’ time in secondary schools, and this seems to be cascading down to primary schools. Primary Six is already a tough age for girls socially, as whizzing hormones come into play and they are grappling to develop their own identity.

Unfortunately, girls can be incredibly mean and spiteful. Whether your daughter is “in” or “out” with her friends can make the difference between happy schooldays or excruciating ones. While boys usually seem able to resolve arguments without holding a grudge, girls play vicious mind games and are skilful in knowing exactly how to hurt each other – and smartphones are an excellent tool for this.

Despite your daughter’s understandable reluctance to speak to a teacher, as she probably fears it will be seen as “telling tales” and may make matters worse, this situation needs to be nipped in the bud before it escalates.

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Schools should have a well-structured set of protocols to deal with all kinds of bullying. Check the details at your daughter’s school. Encourage her again to speak to a teacher, or offer to have a discreet word yourself. Perhaps she has a trustworthy friend who can support her by reporting incidents or provide corroborating evidence.

School bullying has always been a fact of life and is often too subtle to be detected by teachers. However, technology has taken it to a higher level – a 24-hour mental prison sentence for girls from which they can never escape. One slightly unclear comment, or lack of response, on social media can easily be misconstrued and girls will dwell on it all night.

Before the advent of instant electronic communication and internet social networks, home was an oasis away from bullies and a chance for reflection, family time and hobbies. Now, some children check their phones constantly.

Most parents I speak to have trouble supervising time limits for laptops and phones. My friend’s 14-year-old daughter who has a 9pm watershed for using her phone is distraught that her friends are messaging until at least 10pm, worrying that she is missing out on social interactions.

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Schools have recognised the need to teach face-to-face social skills, but are often not specifically focused on issues thrown up by girls’ social interactions. By Year Four, friendship cliques develop and many are becoming experts at subtle cruelty.

Parents can take solace in the fact that as girls enter the higher years of secondary school, longer-term friendships are established, social anxiety tends to decrease, and they usually grow kinder as they head towards adulthood.

In the meantime, it can be extremely painful for parents watching helplessly as their daughters suffer. There is no easy answer. There are books and websites that can help girls to be resilient. Bullies generally tend to be cowards who prey on those they see as weaker than themselves, so as parents we should encourage our children to stand tall and appear confident. Let your daughter know that you will always be there as a sounding board, and share stories about how you resolved friendship issues at school.

It is vital that we educate our daughters to use the internet and social media responsibly. Time limits need to be set for technology, however hard this is to manage and enforce. Most of all, as parents and teachers, let’s try to teach our girls to be kind.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher