Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren face psychological trauma from bullying, according to new research released tomorrow. What begins as relatively harmless name-calling can escalate to physical abuse and drive people to eating disorders and even suicide, campaigners warn.
The research, released to mark the start of Anti-Bullying Week, reveals that nine out of 10 children aged 11 to 16 have been verbally bullied or witnessed it happening to others in the past year. The vast majority (79 per cent) of victims report it taking place at school. One in eight of the young adults surveyed considered missing school to avoid being verbally abused. Missing school is no longer an escape for some victims who report that verbal abuse follows them into their homes through cyber-bullying.
Just over a quarter (26 per cent) of the 875 young people aged 11 to 16 surveyed in England for the Anti-Bullying Alliance, part of the charity the National Children's Bureau, reported direct verbal abuse; two-thirds (66 per cent) report seeing others bullied.
Despite the rise in bullies using the internet or text messages to torment their victims, "traditional" verbal bullying remains widespread in schools, campaigners claim. It is distinguished from childish name-calling by its repetition and the deliberate intention to upset the victim.
Ross Hendry, Chair of the National Children's Bureau's Anti-Bullying Alliance, said: "Sometimes there is a tendency to see verbal bullying as being less serious than physical bullying. But the emotional and psychological impact can be just as damaging and may affect young people's self-esteem and confidence to the point where they don't want to go to school."
School bullying is a reflection of wider society, claimed Mr Hendry: "Casual name-calling and the use of derogatory language – so common in our schools and in society more generally – can lead to verbal bullying being seen as acceptable. It's imperative school communities work together to build and maintain an ethos of respectful behaviour so that children and young people are kept safe from all forms of bullying."
Singer Nicola Roberts, from Girls Aloud, is backing calls for more to be done to stamp out bullying in schools. She will be emphasising the message when she meets the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, this week. "The whole issue is a lot more serious than when I was at school and something's got to be done about it," she said.
"Teachers need to be more aware and I think that pupils need to be taught to be nicer people, they need to be taught that bullying is wrong, to think of other people and how they are feeling." The singer wasn't bullied at school, but recalled "seeing other kids getting hassled".
She described how it took years to get over being dubbed a "sour-faced old cow" by Radio 1's Chris Moyles. "I was 17. I never talked about it until I was about 21. I was embarrassed; I'd rather just ignore it."
Singer Aston Merrygold, from the band JLS, suffered as a teenager. "They'd start making jokes about things that were irrelevant. Skin colour started coming into it ... I was really upset by it." He urged victims to go online at cybermentors.org.uk.
Charlotte Brewer, 15, from London, was picked on at primary school. "I was bullied for about two months every day. They used to call me names and make me feel stupid. It just happened in school because Mum used to pick me up. I didn't tell anyone but Mum noticed that my behaviour changed at home so she figured it out. She told my school and she had a meeting with the bully's mum. But the teachers didn't really do anything except separate us. The way it got resolved is that my little sister stuck up for me."
Verbal bullying is symptomatic of a wider problem, according to a spokesperson from the charity Beatbullying. "Bullying, abuse and violence at the hands of peers is happening to young people in classrooms, playgrounds and streets around the UK in epidemic levels with no sign of it lessening." He added: "Forty-four per cent of suicides among young people are bullying-related so, at its extreme, bullying is threatening lives."
Roger Crouch's son Dominic was 15 when he took his own life in 2010 after suffering from bullying. Mr Crouch, a 55-year-old local government officer from Cheltenham, said: "My son was bullied by the spreading of rumours and circulating of texts and images. They were circulated by his schoolmates, then there was name-calling and then verbal bullying." He added: "He always claimed he wasn't being bullied. We only became aware after he died."
Parents need to be watchful for symptoms, such as children becoming withdrawn or school work suffering, Mr Crouch added. A survey of more than 600 people by the eating disorder charity Beat has revealed that 65 per cent felt bullying had contributed to their disorder.
Case study: Lucas Haywood, 14, from Leicester
Lucas suffers from frontal-nasal craniofacial dysplasia, a disease causing facial disfigurement, and was picked on at school
"Sometimes it's a lack of understanding and sometimes people are just plain mean. When I was five, I was called elephant man. I didn't know what that meant and I don't think any other five-year-old would know. If they were calling me that their parents must have been the ones who were saying that to them.
"I was bullied the whole time I was at primary school, from when I started until pretty much when I left. It was the whole lot: I was kicked, punched, spat on and I was teased and called names.
"I told my parents and the teachers. My parents were really upset and the teachers did try to help but not necessarily successfully.
"For other children being bullied, I'd recommend they smile. Keeping positive definitely helps you to get on with your life."
Lucas was helped by the Changing Faces charity, and is now one of their young campaigners