“You wouldn’t understand, Dad,” Jordan said. “I’m being picked on at school.”
This is what 15-year-old Jordan Lewis told his dad after quitting the football team one day into the season. Just a few weeks ago, Jordan killed himself with a gunshot to the heart.
“I’m jumping. I can’t take it anymore,” Rebecca wrote to a classmate.
In September, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick jumped to her death from a third-story cement plant structure after being verbally, physically, and cyber-bullied for an entire year.
These are just two recent incidents in a long list of suicides by bullied kids in America, also known as bullycide. Though bullying is nothing new — even Jordan Lewis’ dad explained to his son how he himself was bullied as a kid for having red hair and glasses — suicide rates for 15-24-year-olds have more than doubled since the 1950s, according to the American Association of Suicidology. And, as this article in Time points out, the rate of suicides among those under age 24 continues to inch up. It’s also not unique to America. Experts and parents concur that the rise of social media has led to an “empathy crisis.” In other words, technology is making us all a bit apathetic. Case in point: One of the girls facing charges related to Rebecca Sedwick’s death posted on Facebook after the incident, “Yes I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a (expletive).” (What the what?!) The increased use of social media dovetails with the rise of mobile use among kids — the Cyberbullying Research Center reported that over 80% of teens use cell phones, and that was in 2010!
But this bullying problem starts at home, right? I mean, how else do kids become so hateful? So hurtful? The stepmother of the classmate who left that awful message on Facebook following Rebecca Sedwick’s death was just arrested on two counts of child abuse, which makes me feel a bit relieved because it shows that someone, the parent, was in control, and therefore at some fault. The kid who didn’t give a BLEEP about her former classmate’s suicide was being raised by someone who didn’t give a BLEEP about her. I’m not alone in my thinking. KJ Dell’Antonia over at New York Times‘ Motherlode asks: “Should parents face arrest if their child is a bully?” And the sheriff in Sedwick’s case vowed to arrest the parents of the bullies involved in her death. All I want to know is, what are we teaching our kids about kindness? How do we go from kindergarten rules of sharing to online harassment? I do think that parents are accountable, but they don’t bear the sole responsibility. Educators are accountable. Coaches are accountable. All adults are accountable.
As a kid who was bullied, I can attest to the fact that it was a very rare event for an adult to intervene. One very significant example dates all the way back from preschool (I have a hard time letting things go). All the girls brought in their Rainbow Bright dolls one day to play and I remember being told I could not join the festivities because someone in the group decided that since I had colored my doll’s face green, I was out. I did the correct thing by going to my teacher and explaining the situation, yet I was met with complete apathy. The teacher said something along the lines of: “There’s nothing I can do if they don’t want to play with you.” WHAT?! This was a complete opportunity to teach kids about diversity and tolerance and all that good stuff and yet there was nothing she could do. I’m sad to say I encountered this apathy more often than not. Bus drivers never intervened when I was punched or my belongings were thrown around — if it didn’t cause a big enough distraction to their driving, then it wasn’t happening.
My mother made countless phone calls to parents of kids who were beating me up and harassing me through elementary school, but it didn’t do anything to change what was happening. I existed in this parallel universe where adults were all around but I was all alone. And herein lies the problem. If parents worked as hard on teaching their kids compassion as they do to get them to use the potty, we’d have a nicer group of kids. Same goes for teachers and any other adult figure in a kid’s life. Kids aren’t just being kids; we can’t dismiss and overlook the smallest inkling of mean-spiritedness. We are responsible for shaping the world in which kids live and grow. Everything is a teachable moment. [Insert Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Teach Your Children."]
Though it’s easy to say it all comes back to the parents — if you look at the early life of major criminals family issues are strongly rooted — kids are exposed to much more outside the home. Social media can be a source of good to spread positive messages, but for some kids it has become an inescapable source of torture. It’s up to every adult to be a role model for acceptable behavior toward others. If you need guidance in the most effective ways to combat bullying, the Bully Project has a great resource toolbox on their site. It addresses teachers, parents, and advocates because they know bullying prevention is a community effort. Their message: Be an upstander, not a bystander. In the website’s related documentary, Bully, a girl named Kelby explains why she refuses to leave her small town despite the threats and attacks made upon her for being a lesbian:
“All it takes is for one person to stand up. You’re not just standing up for you , you’re standing up for all the kids who go through this every single day.”
If a kid can do this, we can.