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Global studies reveal 5 ways faith can reduce bullying, empower victims

“Don’t laugh at me
Don’t call me names
Don’t get your pleasure from my pain
In God’s eyes we’re all the same
Someday we’ll all have perfect wings
Don’t laugh at me.”
–from the song “Don’t Laugh at Me” by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin.

A powerful resource for reducing bullying and helping victims heal may be right in your local church, temple or mosque.

The congregational youth group.

A new wave of international scholarship addressing public concerns over bullying is extending into religious communities.

Researchers are discovering that congregations are uniquely positioned to offer the type of social support and the promotion of values such as empathy, forgiveness and love of neighbor that appear to be effective ways of addressing the issue.

Here are five ways research suggests faith can play an important role in reducing bullying:

Cultivate spiritual well-being: Slovakian adolescents who said it was important for them to pray or meditate and for their lives to have joy and meaning were at lower risk of bullying others.

The research also found those individuals were less likely to observe bullying by others, indicating positive peer relationships that influenced their own attitudes toward belittling others. “They think that their peers are not involved in bullying behavior. This afterwards reduces their risk of bullying others,” researchers found.

The findings, researchers concluded, indicate “the need to promote strategies that support the development of spiritual well-being among adolescents, as it can play an important role in decreasing the prevalence of bullying.”

Providing alternatives to a coarse culture: Sociocultural factors such as social acceptability and the influence of friends, parents and institutions were the strongest predictor of the intention to cyberbully in a study of some 400 Malaysian young adults.

“Cyberbullying incidences with higher rates of cyber-victims will increase when people live in a society that has a lackadaisical attitude towards this behavior, and more worryingly when witnesses of cyberbullying do not report incidences to law enforcement and safety,” researchers reported.

Friends, families and institutions all have a vital role to play, and should be included in the prevention, intervention as well as coping strategies surrounding bullying, researchers concluded.

Faith may have a special role. In focus groups on the topic prior to the study, some 1 in 5 respondents cited the positive influence of religion, saying they believed religious adherents were inclined “to resist forces that influence hurting another person.”

Developing moral consciences: A separate international study of high school students found that moral disengagement, including vilifying the victim and absolving oneself of personal responsibility, was the most powerful risk factor for going online to repeatedly attack others.

But what reduced bullying were aspects of spirituality such as spiritual forgiveness, religious attendance and daily spiritual experiences.

Suggested interventions included helping bullies realize the hurt inflicted by their actions and disabusing victims of the notion that since they were bullied it is OK to bully others.

Forgiveness may be divine: An Australian study of children ages 11 to 15 revealed that children who chose to forgive their abuser experienced significantly less anger than those who chose to seek revenge or ignore the behavior.

In an earlier U.S. study, researchers who reported similar findings noted the value of educating individuals in aspects of forgiveness that can reduce stress, anger and depression and possibly restore relationships.

Forgiveness is a fundamental Judea-Christian principle and bullying may be a practical context within which to teach it. It may be a particularly appealing intervention to Christian church leaders, adolescents, and parents,” researchers said.

Standing up, not standing by: In a U.S. study, young people who said their faith gives them strength and influences the decisions they make were significantly more likely to comfort or defend bullying victims or report the incidents to an adult.

“The current results suggest that youth who value religion have a higher likelihood of supporting victims than youth who do not value religion,” said researchers analyzing data from a study of 5,800 North Carolina students ages 11 to 19.

This is not to say faith always plays a positive role.

Religious communities who react with judgment rather than love and support to individuals bullied over issues such as their weight or sexual orientation can be a source of even greater pain and suffering for victims.

But the latest research suggests that faith communities who live up to their own ideals of loving thy neighbor and welcoming the stranger can make a major difference in reducing bullying.

How can everyone do their part?

The Dalai Lama offers this bit of anti-bullying advice: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Image by Grape Vine, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Sumeet818, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image by Dick Stracke, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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