Graphic videos of minors using violence against another minor made the rounds in Estonia last week. From police as well as psychologists' point of view, there is fundamentally no difference between physical violence and bullying, as in both cases, harm is done to the victim. Only intervention of any kind can help against violence, and the greatest example must come from adults.
One in five schoolchildren between the ages of 11-15 in Estonia will experience school bullying during the school year. Not every conflict constitutes emotional abuse, but it can grow to be. According to psychologists, bullying is often sparked by the bullier's own unmet needs.
While increasing opportunities and resources exist for the prevention of violence, the problem nonetheless persists in society.
"There have been no noticeable changes over time here; this is something that has always been present both in kindergarten and in elementary school," said Kristi Feldman, board member at the Estonian Association of School Psychologists (EKPÜ). "Physical bullying isn't as widespread today, but there is quite a lot of gossiping and teasing. A lot of bullying has moved online, especially during the [COVID-19 pandemic]."
In order to more effectively fight cyberbullying, starting this year, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) has assigned an internet officer to every county across the country that can be contacted via Facebook or email. Police, however, end up coming across many incidents themselves.
"This is a private account on Instagram — 'eestinoored3' — and there's actually quite a few of these accounts," explained North Prefecture Internet Officer Anna-Liisa Kreitsman, showing a screenshot of a photo posted to the Instagram account in question of a student trapped on a window ledge on a higher floor of a school building.
"In this case, this was a school bullying situation," Kreitsman described. "One student took another student's personal belongings and placed them outside the window, and the student went to get them. This wasn't on the ground floor; this incident occurred on a higher floor. Then the window was closed, and the student's hand got trapped in the window. In other words, in addition to the fact that they felt humiliated, physical pain and emotional abuse, they were also in danger of falling from there. If something had gone wrong, this could have ended with very grave consequences."
Nonetheless, not all reports to internet police are regarding school violence. On the contrary; 25-50 of every thousand reports are related to violence used by minors. Mobile youth work is likewise increasingly being implemented across Estonian counties, which keeps an eye on groups of youths in a given town or city's public space.
Just five years ago, the mobile youth worker working in Tallinn's Tammsaare Park had their hands full. By now, however, there are more activities in the capital city's various districts, and youth work has likewise expanded across the city.
"If we compare what we saw in the Tammsaare Park in the city some five, six years ago, for example, where 200 or more young people were hanging around, then there's somewhat less violence that we see right now," said Aleksei Jefimov, chief mobile youth work specialist for the City of Tallinn.
Thus, violence like that seen in the videos of minors beating another minor to circulate on social media last week is rare. Reactions and comments in which peers harshly condemned the attackers were nonetheless quick to spread as well, including comments hoping that the attackers in the videos themselves are stabbed or otherwise attacked in turn.
According to police, however, such behavior likewise constitutes bullying as well.
"That's actually the same type of emotional abuse — the same type of cyberbullying — which can lead to some terrible consequences," Kreitsman said. "Of course it is wrong for us to leave the victim in the role of victim for so long."
Sometimes victims of bullying are unable to even say why they are bullied. Urmas, one victim of school bullying, concluded based on his experiences that perhaps he just didn't appear to be everyone else's equal.
School bullying victim: It's hard for me to form relationships
"The most striking case was — the first snow of the season had fallen, and the snow was packing, so let's go outside and have a snowball fight," Urmas recalled. "All the school boys, and they all essentially only threw [snowballs] at me. And not like trying to hit me from some 10 meters away, or 20, but they actually got in my face; they just shoved snow in my face. That snowball fight wasn't very fun."
The trauma inflicted during his school years caused him self-esteem issues.
"It's been the case for a long time that it's downright impossible for me to accept the fact that anyone might like me," Urmas said. "And in relationships, for example — that is a completely incomprehensible concept for me; no such things exist for me. Because I was hated so much during that period, then it's absolutely impossible — and it's very difficult to form relationships, because I always just have this preconceived notion that they don't like me anyway."
Urmas, who was bullied for nearly five years, said that he ultimately found help from an independent school, as he couldn't take any more suffering. At home, he was told to ignore the bullies.
Experts stress, however, how crucial adults' examples are.
"Homes play an incredibly important role," Feldman stressed. "If parents at home value constantly commenting on and belittling other people, their behavior or their appearance, including in within their own relationship as a couple, then we can do quite a lot at school, but in reality, a child's values are largely rooted in their family, and that is incredibly difficult to break, because children are very loyal to their parents."
Editor: Aili Vahtla