Thursday, November 8, 2012

(Not) Ending Bullying Through Exaggeration and Misinformation

Mean Girls (Image from Flickr, by Combined Media)

First the good news: With the increased media coverage and public attention we’ve seen over the past decade, bullying is on the decline in some parts of the U.S. In California, for example, the school bullying rate has been reduced to one-third that of the rest of the nation.  

Despite this promising statistic, my colleagues and I were recently informed at an anti-bullying workshop that bullying is on the rise nationwide. The presenter did not provide any references or documentation to support her claim. Instead, she showed us a heartbreaking video about bullying victims who had committed suicide and told us that 3,000 teens commit suicide each year, implying that teen suicide is primarily caused by bullying.

There is now a sizable anti-bullying movement and with it a growing network of nonprofits and community-based organizations devoted to stamping out the problem. Education can help reduce bullying, but only when the information is accurate and reliable. Exaggeration and misinformation may lead to larger donations and greater media attention, but they also unnecessarily fuel parents’ and teachers’ existing anxieties and fears, while drawing resources and attention away from other threats to children’s wellbeing.

Youth Suicide Rates are the Lowest Ever Recorded
All teen suicides are tragic, but not all teen suicides can be linked to bullying. Moreover, teen suicide is on the decline, with a rate today that is less than half what it was 40 years ago. It is also far lower than it is for adults. Only 1 in 2500 teens (13-19) kill themselves, whereas 1 in 900 adults do. The suicide rate for 10-14 year-olds was only 0.9 per 100,000 in 2007, and only 6.9 per 100,000 for 15-19 year-olds, according to NIH data. However, the suicide rate jumped to 12.7 per 100,000 for 20-24 year-olds, well after kids have left high school, suggesting that factors other than school bullying are at play. For example, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can result from physical, emotional or sexual abuse growing up, and can manifest long after moving away from home. Indeed, youth advocate Mike Males says that a history of living in an abusive family is a far more common cause of teen suicide than bullying.

How Prevalent is Bullying?
Even when bullying does not result in suicide, it can still be a traumatizing experience that negatively impacts self-esteem and academic success. Good Education reports that 160,000 students avoid school each day because of fears of being bullied. Furthermore, almost 40% of high school freshmen report daily bullying, while 70% of all high school students report regular online bullying according to Good.

These are shockingly high numbers, but they do not tell the whole story.

If 40% of high school freshmen are experiencing vicious daily bullying, we should be seeing an epidemic of suicides, depression and low self-esteem as a result. Yet none of these problems comes close to 40%. As mentioned above, the suicide rate for 15-19 year olds is extremely low (0.0069%), while the depression rate for 13-18 year olds is 5.6%, according to a 2006 study by E. Jane Costello and colleagues that tested the teen depression “epidemic” hypothesis.

There are several ways to explain this paradox.

Some victims of bullying have the friends, social support and self-confidence to survive the experience without lasting trauma. Some, no doubt, shake it off and move on without letting it bother them. Others may feel bad for a little while and then continue with their lives.

Not every child has this capability, of course. Many are already isolated and alienated and have low self-esteem before the bullying even begins. This not only diminishes their resiliency, but it is also sometimes the reason they are targeted by bullies in the first place. Indeed, it is likely that some of the bullying victims who do attempt suicide may be suffering from other problems in addition to bullying, like a lack of emotional support or outright abuse at home.

Another explanation for this paradox is that those surveyed used an overly broad interpretation of bullying that encompasses all forms of teasing, criticizing and other unpleasant social interactions. Everyone experiences tactless or insensitive comments from time to time that can be very hurtful. We have all received unsolicited criticism (sometimes accurate) that made us feel bad. But these are not bullying and calling them such does not help reduce bullying nor make children any safer.

Bullying involves the repeated and deliberate abuse of an individual by exploiting a real or perceived power imbalance, like when a larger kid regularly knocks the books out of the hands of a smaller one, or when popular students repeatedly spread rumors in order to humiliate a less popular student. Intellectual bullying can occur when an “A” student refuses to let a teammate participate because he is perceived to be dumber and might mess up their team grade.

This definition of bullying does not include many behaviors that are equally dangerous or traumatizing. Homophobia, sexism and racism, for example, can be expressed in ways that do not directly target any individual, yet they can still have a negative impact on the self-esteem and physical safety of individuals. For example, a student who publicly proclaims that “homosexuality is gross,” has not bullied any individual student, but the message that is heard by everyone is that there is something wrong being gay, something that can undermine the self-esteem and security of gay students. If teachers allow this  to occur without intervening, it could escalate into bullying or homophobic violence.

Yet anti-gay bullying is NOT the biggest threat facing gay youth, according to Mike Males. A study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of young gay men who had contemplated suicide found that the most important reasons for their suicidal thoughts were drug and alcohol abuse by their parents, poverty, unemployment and childhood sexual or physical abuse.

Rather than obsessing about bullying per se, it would be more productive for educators to learn to recognize when students are having emotional or social problems and provide the appropriate support or interventions, regardless of the cause. It should not matter why a child is being beat up. It is still the responsibility of school personnel to intercede. Likewise, a good teacher should take action whenever she hears racist or sexist comments, as well as homophobic or bullying comments, not only to maintain a productive academic environment, but to help all students feel safe and welcome in the classroom.

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