Yesterday my Facebook feed was full of posts about a teen suicide in the community in which I grew up. The young person was a victim of cyber-bullying and, although the parents and others were actively trying to help, he ended his life. The community is reeling because this is a well-loved family and part of a seemingly “safe” world in which disturbing events are rare or, when they do occur, are easily categorized into events where blame can be clearly placed or events beyond human control. Yet, this death breaks that mold and has people soul searching. Several have mentioned the strong social pecking order at the high school he attended. Others have speculated that there something about this community that creates a situation in which a youngster can easily suffer. Others ask what can be done differently in the future? It has me thinking too, thinking about bullying research done by several of our recent Ph.D. graduates and about how communities treat people who are different.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data demonstrate that almost a third of young people have been bullied ( http://www.stopbullying.gov/news/media/facts/#listing ). Physical bullying is the weapon of choice for boys, emotional and relational bullying that of girls. Newer on the scene is cyber bullying in which social media, text messages, etc. are used to ensure that individuals have no respite from the torture doled out at school, on the sports field, in the faith community, or the neighborhood. Kids can be bullied when they wake up, while they do their homework, before bed, or in the middle of the night. The bully is not left at the bus stop, the school house door, or the locker room. He or she can infiltrate all parts of life through the smart phone.
Frankly, the word “bully” bugs me. The image it conjures is of a grumpy, but of sort of cute, little bull. And bullying is anything but cute. Bullying is a pattern of using physical or social power to intimidate. It is behavior that makes people feel shut out, unworthy, too different, unlovable, unsafe, and alone. No different really than harassment, assault, or other behavior that we label cruel and criminal. Indeed, it is cruelty that we excuse a bit because it is done most often by people we consider immature. And although serious bullying is easy to spot, the more subtle forms are not. We’re not always clear on where the line is crossed between “kids working it out” and a kid becoming a target.
We’re also unclear about whether bullying really represents a problem to be solved or a normal, though difficult part of growing up. Indeed, most of us will face social rejection at one time or another. Sometimes we need to learn that our habits or ways of being are annoying or not conducive to friendships. Relationships with peers can teach us those things. Likewise, they can teach us about who real friends are and where you find them. But bullying is different. It isn’t a friendship that goes awry where mean words are said, a fight breaks out, the relationship ends, and the parties involved avoid each other and move on. Bullying focuses on who you are more so than what you do and like fire, if not actively put out, grows in intensity and strength. Its goal is to destroy.
But destroy what? Usually the answer is difference. Kids with disabilities, being in the minority culture in school, being perceived has gay, lesbian, bi, or trans, have all been associated with bullying. In North Carolina we passed a law several years ago, the Safe Schools Act, that ostensibly protected kids in the groups mentioned from bullying. But in a recent analysis done by one of our doctoral graduates, not all kids were protected equally (Hall, 2015). Teachers knew that the law applied to kids with disabilities and kids being targeted based on race or ethnicity; kids perceived as LGBTQ kids were left out. Another doctoral graduate found that LGBTQ name-calling was associated with the most severe forms of bullying (Evans & Chapman, 2014).
Of course there are lots of ways kids can be different. They may have interests that don’t fit, an off-beat sense of humor, like different music or styles of dress. If my home community where this recent tragedy occurred is complicit in some way, insistence on conformity is the likely culprit. Be smart but not intellectual. Be athletic. Be very clearly straight. These faith communities are okay. Those faith communities are not. Don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. If you’re a female, let the boys think they’re smarter than you. If you’re a boy, you can have interests outside of sports and hunting, but nothing too artsy. Do whatever you need to do to be considered an insider.
Here’s the hard part. Social norms are communicated and transmitted by adults. From the time children are very small they observe and listen to the jokes that are told and tolerated, know the proper activities in which adults want them to participate, notice which kids teachers encourage and protect and which are hung out to dry, watch the things the adults around them do to conform, and on and on. The insecure, troubled young person who decides to act out through bullying is given very clear messages about who an appropriate target will be. Coupled with the endless oxygen supply that is social media, the cruelty spark is easily fueled.
If horrible events that cause such immeasurable pain have anything to give us, it is to force reflection on whether what we say about our values when we are confronted with distressing events aligns with our behavior, and the messages, implicit and explicit, that we give the young people who look up to us, whether we are teachers, neighbors, coaches, parents, clergy, or others. Are our signals clear about what we value most? Are we teaching kids that the world is much bigger than their current circumstances and they will find their place even if it is far away from where they start out? How do we give thanks for the wide variety of people in that big, wide, world instead of expressing disdain for and fear of what we don’t understand? Bullying programs in schools may help, although the research is mixed (Evans, Fraser, & Cotter, 2014). Policies provide a foundation by communicating clear societal values but they are not sufficient when individuals do not know about them or enforce them (Hall, et al, under review).
I was recently contacted about a new program called “Challenge Day” that aims to promote increased empathy among middle and high school students (http://www.challengeday.org/videos.php ). Does it make a lasting difference? Who knows? There is probably no one silver bullet; instead there will be many. To honor this child’s legacy and those that have gone before him, perhaps our first step is to reflect on what we, as adults, teach our young people and make sure we are communicating what we think we are.