Less than a month after the death of Jamey Rodemeyer, a teenager from Buffalo, NY who committed suicide after being bullied by classmates, the nation has once again become re-awakened to the fact that this issue, which flooded the media a year ago with the death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, is not going away anytime soon.
School districts across the country have begun to implement a bevy of anti-bullying initiatives; new laws have been proposed, curriculum has been implemented, town hall meetings have been scheduled, anti-bullying literature has been distributed to students, and officials from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services have worked with the president to bring light to the issue.
Unfortunately, much of the discussions about the solutions to bullying have proven to be ineffective. If we consider Jamey Rodemeyer's case, it becomes evident that many of the anti-bullying initiatives were either available to him, or already in place. As many people who have been touted as "experts" on bullying recommend, Jamey wrote about his problems, found a network of bullying victims online, ignored bullies, had a psychologist, and met with a social worker. Despite these facts, he was still driven to suicide.
There are 5 major reasons why anti-bullying initiatives have been unsuccessful. In order to truly address the bullying problem, we must accept that the central reason why bullying continues to be so prevalent among our youth is because of the ineffective attempts to combat the problem by adults. Here are some examples.
The Zero-Tolerance Theory Backfires
While the idea of zero-tolerance for bullying appears to makes sense by letting youth know that it's not condoned, too many anti-bullying initiatives impose too harsh a punishment that does nothing but demonize the bully. Common practices like isolating the bully from the general population or automatic suspensions are never a good solution. Exercising adult power over students by punishing them, without explaining why they are being punished or attempts to get to the cause of the behavior, makes the adult a bully also.
When adults act as bullies, youth begin to see bullying as acceptable, as a means to an end. Rather than stop their bullying, they avert getting caught and become more subtle, making future bullying harder to detect, and even more difficult to address.
Avoiding Social Media Is NOT A Solution
Over the course of the last year, there has been a growing sentiment among parents and educators to ban social media in schools. In a few cases, principals have asked parents to stop their children from using social media at home as well. These decisions are fueled by the increased use of social media as a mechanism for bullying, and the belief that stopping access to social media will in some way slow down the frequency of bullying.
The reason why social media has been a place where bullying is rampant has nothing to do with social media itself. It has everything to do with the fact that youth do not view it as a real space. There is a perception that what happens in cyberspace is not even reality. Attempting to eliminate social media makes it more exotic to kids and it becomes a place viewed as taboo and welcomes inappropriate behavior. Rather than ban social media, parents and educators should welcome it, and teach youth how to use it appropriately. If kids learn that what happens on the web is no different than what happens in the classroom, they would learn to use it appropriately.
We Address Bullying with Celebrity, Not Expertise
While it is important to bring visibility to issues surrounding bullying, and celebrities do a good job at providing this visibility, it's more important to focus on ways to truly address this issue. This involves much more than a famous person saying, "bullying is wrong," it requires real experts who can provide an analysis of the bullying scenarios that occur in the school, an interrogation of what structures are in the school/family that supports this behavior, teacher training on how to identify and address bullying, and the identification of strategies within schools for supporting bullied youth while rehabilitating the bullies. These strategies exist -- educators who focus on this work are out there -- but we consistently shift to those who have less insight and more celebrity. This model sensationalizes bullying, but does not offer any real solutions.
We Forget that the Bullied And The Bully Are Both Children
One of the biggest misunderstandings about bullying is that bullies are to be punished, and those who are bullied need sympathy. School-age bullies are seen as adults, and the victims are viewed as children. The reality is that both the bully and victim are children who require equal doses of care and attention. Punishing a child like an adult only corrects an external behavior, and not the cause of it. For bullied children, sympathy without empowerment gives them a license to remain a victim.
We Turn A Blind Eye To Adult Bullying
One of the biggest reasons why bullying persists in America is because kids see it every day. While many adults see teens as merely a "new generation" of ruthless youth, the truth is that adults rarely provide a civil role model for them. We live in an era where the news features name calling in the political arena, name calling as part of the sports culture, and sports commentators give athletes demeaning nick-names. When a congressman publicly calls the president a "tar baby" it shouldn't be hard to see where kids get it from. Therefore, it's important for educators, parents, and other grownups to show kids that bullying and name calling by adults is just as bad as when it's enacted by youth.
While the 5 reasons outlined above are by no means the solution to the bullying problem, they give us a place to start on how to effectively address it.