It’s relentless. Virtually every week the media informs us about another new tragedy of a young person taking his or her own life because they could no longer tolerate being bullied. Our country has been intensively combating bullying for a dozen years, since the Columbine shooting brought the problem of bullying to the nation’s consciousness. Why are all of our efforts failing? Why are so many kids committing ‘bullycide,’ as the phenomenon of bullying-related suicide is being labeled. (The term is actually a misnomer, as linguistically ‘bullycide means’ ‘killing a bully.’)
There are two reasons. One is already well known and has been reported by many other experts. That reason is ‘the copycat effect.’ The behavior takes on the status of a fad, the cool thing to do. The shooting at Columbine was followed by numerous other shootings or threats of shootings. The media was reporting on these events so intensively that some perverse kids saw shooting up their schools as a great way to get publicity for their suffering. But experts in violence warned that the media was unwittingly encouraging copycat Columbine-type actions, so the media wisely toned down their reporting and the fad of school shootings gradually fizzled out.
A for more popular fad is self-injury. Self-injury is cooler than hurting others and it spares one public scorn. Not surprisingly, cutting has become a far more common copycat act than random shootings, and body piercing even more so.
The ultimate act of self-injury is suicide, and it earns one sympathy rather than scorn.
If you are a kid who has been bullied relentlessly, become desperate about your situation, see no way out and want to make a public statement against bullying, you may consider a random shooting. However, you know that you will be presented as a villain rather than a hero, while destroying your family’s reputation as well. Nor will your act earn sympathy for other victims of bullying, and the media will minimize publicity of your act.
On the other hand, you have seen that the media glorifies kids who commit bullycide. They make the news big-time. Their faces appear on the covers of national magazines. Antibullying laws are named after them. Antibullying organizations capitalize on them to further their cause. So if you are hopeless, want to stop suffering, desire to strengthen the campaign against bullies and become a hero, suicide is the perfect tool.
But aside from the copycat effect, there is a second reason that is not being recognized, and it may be even more consequential. And that is our antibullying education.
Consider what kids have been taught about bullying for over a decade. They have attended assemblies presented by highly paid ‘bullying experts’ who tell them about the horrible effects of bullying. They have been presented with school bullying policies outlining all the kinds of bullying that they should not tolerate. They have been told that words can scar them forever or even kill them. They have seen No Bully Zone posters plastered in school corridors. They have watched movies and read books about the pain of being bullied. They have participated in antibullying rallies and wear antibullying bracelets. They have been told that they are not capable of dealing with bullies on their own because the bullies are too strong, so their classmates and teachers must stand up for them against their bullies. Their favorite celebrities have embarked on highly publicized antibullying campaigns and assured them “It gets better.” They have been promised that tough new laws will protect them from bullying.
Then they are confronted with reality. Despite society’s promises of protection and the comforting “It gets better” declarations, they continue to get bullied–and it’s only getting worse. The ever-present No Bully Zone posters are nothing but a lie to them. When the school authorities get involved against their bullies, their peers despise them even more, call them ‘snitches’ and want revenge.
Having been told year after year how destructive bullying is, they become even more upset when they are bullied. And when they get upset, they get picked on even more, because emotional upset is what fuels bullying. So the bullying gets worse, they become more desperate, and they are more likely to feel that the only way to end their misery is to end life itself.
We will never reduce bullying by continuing our current antibullying efforts.
We need to realize that kids who commit bullycide, as much as we sympathize with their misery and grieve for them, are not heroes and the last thing we want is for them to be role models. They are the kids who lacked the resilience and the wisdom to deal with their problem. We cannot continue to glorify them with magazine covers and laws in their name and expect bullycide to decrease.
The most reliable way to prevent kids from taking their own lives is to teach them how to deal with bullying on their own. It is not hard to stop being bullied, and our kids deserve to be taught how to do it.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies (www.Bullies2Buddies.com), a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems.