The headline took my breath away. In a town close to mine, a 15-year-old had committed suicide due to cyberbullying. Described as a charming and well-liked young girl, she nonetheless crumbled when targeted on the Internet by some of her classmates. Death at 15 due to scapegoating by some of the very people she thought were her friends! I ache for her parents. I mourn for her young life. I’m furious that lives are being cut short because those who bully apparently know no limits.
Bullying has always been with us, especially during the middle school and high school years. Adolescents who feel uncertain of their own self-worth, who worry about their standing among their peers, or who just plain have a mean streak have put down the shy, the weak, the less accomplished, fashionable, or with-it kids probably for as long as there has been such a thing as adolescence.
Some adults I’ve talked to think that it’s just part of life. Some kids are up. Some are down. Weathering the changes in cliques, shifts in popularity, and the changes in hierarchy of the teen years is seen as an inevitable part of growing up. Some adults even see it as a necessary rite of passage to learn to manage a certain amount of bullying; to be able to turn a putdown into a joke; to learn to stand up for oneself. Yes and no. Momentarily being the butt and brunt of some teasing is one thing. To be the target of relentless bullying is another.
Adults who were bullied as kids have a very different view than those who were safely part of the in (or at least not out) crowd. Being stuffed in a locker may be the stuff of jokes on the very popular sitcom “Glee,” but it was no joke to the guy I know who had the whole phys ed class actually do it to him while the coach was out of the locker room. Same with being “slushied.” Funny on “Glee.” In life? Not at all. Even more damaging than physical insults are rumors, innuendo, and cruel “jokes” where some kids are put down so others can feel superior or exclusive. Memories of such torments (whether physical or verbal) stay with people and inform their sense of themselves, of others, and their safety in the world well into adulthood.
As harmful as bullying has always been, what many adults don’t seem to understand is that it’s moved to a dangerously different level now. Boundaries of social connection have been blurred and broken down both positively and negatively. Young people can connect with each other, support each other, and share their experiences immediately and constantly through Facebook, IM, Twitter, cell phone, and email. The average teen in America now spends up to 7 hours a day (that’s a day, folks) in contact with other people on one electronic device or another.
As those boundaries between people have broken down, so too has courtesy and restraint. The shorthand language of electronics doesn’t include tact. What used to be shared with one other person over the phone or in person is now shared with an entire network. What only a generation ago took days to get around school, now can take minutes. There’s little time to confront a rumor, to clarify a remark, or to stand up to a bully when negative messages get so widespread so fast and when the bully is able to be anonymous.
Tragically, this is leading to increasing numbers of suicides among our teens. In 2006, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, just behind car accidents and homicide. It’s estimated that for every completed suicide, there are 5 or more attempts; attempts that could have been fatal but for the luck of miscalculation about the means or the luck of someone walking in on time.
Kids who make attempts are kids in pain. Attempts are not bids for attention or the use of drama to make a point. These kids don’t necessarily want to die. They want the pain to end and can’t figure out any other way to do it. When teen impulsivity and emotional extremes are added to the mix, the result can be (and too often is) fatal.
What can we do?
- Watch for distress in our own kids. Kids who are chronically angry, who easily lose it, who are visibly upset about going to school or who refuse to go, are actively sending out signals of distress. Kids who are withdrawn and depressed; who spend hours holed up in their own rooms; who claim not to be interested in kids their own age; whose grades plummet – these kids are in more quiet but equally dangerous despair. Parents and teachers can and should talk to them, listen respectfully, and offer help. It’s important to be mindful that unless bullying is handled carefully, the situation can be made worse. Careful cooperation between home and school can make the difference.
- Talk to our kids who don’t seem distressed. Unfortunately, kids don’t always tell us or show us that they are upset. The young girl in the introduction to this article was close to her parents, was pretty, smart and sociable, and seemed to have many friends. Recent arguments about dating turned vicious, then tragic. The lesson for us as parents is how critical it is to talk about bullying whether or not the kids bring it up. It’s important for our adolescents to know that we understand how awful the teen years can be and how unfairly sometimes kids treat each other. We can help them understand that the opinions of others don’t have to be a matter of life and death. Even the kids who seem most secure and mature need to be reassured that if they ever feel so depressed and hurt that they even consider suicide, they have sympathetic and helpful support at home.
- Work with our schools to get to the bystanders. Bullying isn’t just about the bullies. Without bystanders laughing, cheering, passing on damaging texts or pictures, or even just quietly going along, most bullying evaporates – or at least is confined to the few kids the other kids see as bullies. Teens collude with bullies or don’t stand up to them because they fear the bully; because they want to fit in; because they don’t want to be classed with a “loser;” or because they simply don’t know how to stop it. Our schools, youth organizations, and teams are important forums for teaching the consequences of becoming part of the “mob” that goes along with bullies rather than blocking or deleting their messages of hate. Parents and teachers can work together to foster an environment of safety and support in our middle and high schools. We need to actively teach our kids how to say no to bullying – whether it is directed at themselves or at others – and to feel safe doing it.
- Set an example. Perhaps more than ever before, we adults need to set an example of civility and leadership. Our kids are always watching us as role models for what it is to be an adult. Actions really do speak much louder than words. It’s important that they see us treating vulnerable people with compassion and understanding. Consistently speaking up when someone puts another person down or jokes at another’s expense models doing what’s right, even when it may be uncomfortable to do so.