Four Difficult Questions Regarding Bullying and Youth Suicide

Over the last couple of years, I’ve laid awake at night asking myself uncomfortable questions about bullying and teen suicide. I don’t have answers to most of the questions that I have, but I’m choosing to voice my questions, fears, and doubts because I’m not confident that our war on bullying is taking us down the right path. I’m worried about the unintended consequences of our public discourse and I’m worried about the implications that our decisions have on youth, particularly in this high-stakes arena. So I’m asking these four tough questions in the hopes that we can collectively step back and think critically about how we’re addressing bullying as a public issue.

1. What if the stranger danger / sexual predator moral panic increased LGBT suicide?

When I was growing up online, talking to strangers allowed me to getting different perspectives on the world. As a queer teen, the internet allowed me to connect with people who helped me grapple with hard questions around sexuality. I very much thank the internet for playing a crucial role in helping me survive high school. In 2001/2, I visited the online forums that I grew up in, only to find that they were filled with hateful messages directed at LGBT youth by religious ideologues who, quite simply, told these kids they were going to hell. I learned that LGBT networks had gone underground.

As the sexual predator moral panic kicked in in 2005, youth started telling me about how all internet strangers were dangerous. They swallowed the message they’d been told, hook, line, and sinker. What really startled me were all of the LGBT youth I met who told me that they had no one to talk with… I’d ask them if they connected with other LGBT folks online and they’d look at me with horror before talking about how scary/sketchy/bad strangers were.

By many accounts, the early internet seems to be correlated with a decline in suicide among LGBT youth, perhaps because of its ability to connect LGBT to information and support structures. What if the stranger danger rhetoric undermines that? Who do LGBT youth turn to when they’re feeling isolated? Is it possible that the culture of fear we’ve created has increased suicide rates? If so, who’s responsible?

2. What if “It Gets Better” increases emotional devastation for some LGBT youth?

Most LGBT-identified teens who have committed suicide since the “It Gets Better” campaign have been involved in the campaign in some way. Jamey Rodemeyer notoriously made a video before he killed himself. Countless adults (and youth) have celebrated “It Gets Better” as a powerful message filled with hope. But “It Gets Better” isn’t the same as “I can make it better.” Abstraction and patience don’t help when you’re in pain Right Now.

When you’re 14 and coming to terms with your sexuality, six months feels like a decade and 4 years feels like eternity. Along comes a message of hope and it’s really exciting and you get pumped up, like the way you feel when a new song comes on the radio that you feel really speaks to you. You dive in, you create your story, you make your own video. And then what? The humdrums at school continue on and you continue to get teased, only worse this time because you publicly pronounced your story. You felt like you were part of a movement but no one reached out to you, no one helped you make it better. No community was made, no support group was developed. You’re still alone. No one seems to care. You crash and burn.

Getting “high” on a movement can be devastating for youth if there’s no support structure there when they fall. The Trevor Project did a great job of providing some of the needed support infrastructure, but communities themselves often aren’t prepared to support youth. Social services are underfunded. Schools are strapped for cash and getting rid of guidance structures. Parents are stressed out. Community groups are not always tolerant of questioning youth. Is it possible that hopeful messages like “It Gets Better” result in more devastating crashes, particularly for youth in not-so-supportive communities? Does the positive narrative outweigh the possible existential break that can come with being disappointed that things don’t get better?

3. What if the media spotlight around bullying causes harm to youth?

In January 2010, a Massachusetts-based girl named Phoebe Prince killed herself. The highly publicized story suggested that she was an innocent victim who was cruelly tormented by her peers. The story was told in such a cut-and-dry manner that it should’ve raised suspicions in anyone’s mind, but people glommed onto the narrative. Shortly later, the local District Attorney charged six students with various crimes in the case. But did they do what they were accused of doing or was this a witchhunt cloaked as justice? Those kids’ lives have been wrecked by the investigation, publicity, and charges. If they are the devils incarnate that the press want them to be, arguable they deserve it. But what if they didn’t? (If you want to read phenomenal coverage of this, check out Emily Bazelon’s 2010 feature series.)

In the summer of 1999, I was at a rave in a field in Colorado. I was in my tent, writing in my journal, when a group of kids asked me if they could come in. We got to talking and I learned that they had all been students at Columbine on that fateful day when the sanctity of their school was destroyed. I asked them about what it was like to be there and they said that it sucked, but nothing sucked more than the aftermath. They started telling me about how the press hounded them, how they couldn’t hang out with friends, how they had no place to go anymore because the press would sit on their lawns and beg them for more details. Paparazzi at its worst. The kids in my tent had all dropped out of school because of the press. WTF?

On one hand, it’s great that there’s public attention being given to bullying, suicide, and the hardships that youth face. On the other, I can’t help but wonder if the spotlight does additional damage. Does the spotlight help us find effective interventions or just force people to create bandaids? Does it increase justice or result in more kids’ lives being destroyed? Does it showcase the challenges that youth face or obscure them in caricatured forms that lose their nuance? In an effort to tell the story, do we create angels and demons that destroy any hope of creating change?

4. What if us adults are part of the problem?

I spend countless hours talking to youth, thinking about youth, and speaking out on behalf of youth. Nothing makes my heart ache more than seeing youth suffer. I can also still vividly remember my own experiences as a “weird” teen growing up in Pennsylvania who was regularly ostracized and teased. I remember what it was like to feel powerless and to reach that precarious state of anomie. I don’t want anyone to have to go through that which is why I’m so deeply committed to this struggle.

That said, I think that it’s outright dangerous to get so lost in our mission to combat bullying that we stop looking into the mirror. What are the norms that we set for young people when we talk poorly about our friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues at the dinner table? When we engage in road rage while driving? Why is it that we accept – if not encourage – meanness in our political sparring? Or on our TV talk shows? Why do marketers put their money behind reality TV shows that propagate the value of relationship drama as entertainment? Look around at the society we’ve created and it’s filled with harshness. To top it off, look at how much we pressure our youth, particularly middle class youth. Hyper-competition starts early and is non-stop. And look at how increased economic pressure in this country creates new tensions, particularly for working class youth. Then add in the fact that puberty is where all sorts of mental health issues start to appear. Where are the support structures for youth that go beyond the family? We’ve defunded social services left right and center.

In short, we’re creating a societal recipe for disaster even while we publicly pronounce our crusades to end bullying. We don’t need more pundits and journalists and politicians telling us we need to end bullying. We know that. We need to start building out the infrastructure to make it happen. And to realize that it’s a systems-level problem that is not easy to solve. There’s no silver bullet, no magical solution. It can’t be instantly stopped at the school door. It requires collective action, with an eye towards making the world a better place. It requires all-hands-on and a commitment from everyone – and I do mean everyone – to take responsibility for their own actions, values, and attitudes within society. Bullying doesn’t stop by blaming others. It doesn’t stop by creating new regulations. Or inventing new demons. Or scaring people shitless. It stops by collectively agreeing to engage in acts of tolerance, love, bravery, and respect. And that’s far harder to do than passing laws, prosecuting teens, or writing fear-mongering stories.

Image Credit: Ashley Rose

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10 thoughts on “Four Difficult Questions Regarding Bullying and Youth Suicide

  1. Robert de Forest

    All excellent questions and of course I don’t have answers. What I do want to add is that the panic mentioned in the first question is decidedly not helpful.

    When I was in grade school we had fire safety training where a local fireman came to our school and talked calmly about the dangers of fires and how to fight those dangers (don’t rescue your stuff, be careful of potentially hot door handles, stay low where the oxygen is, etc). It wasn’t scary and it wasn’t boring.

    I wasn’t in school when the sexual predator stuff hit (I graduated High School in ’92), so I don’t know what the lessons are like for kids, but as an adult seeing the public campaign, the message I’m hearing is “everyone you meet wants to hurt you, even if they don’t know it yet.” (Yes, of course I’m exaggerating, this is the Internet. 🙂 This kind of message is both not helpful and also harmful. It’s not helpful because “not using the Internet” is not an option, and “using the Internet without being social” is not an option. This message of “filter everyone” is useless because it’s unrealistic. The result will be that kids will just make up their own filters. The message is harmful because it creates an environment of presumed hostility. It’s also harmful because it presumes victimhood on the part of the kids. It tells them they cannot possibly make good judgments, which they will either reject (hopefully) or believe.

    Online safety is a real problem just like meatspace safety. There are some good rules of thumb for being safe in both, and we should teach them the way we teach fire safety. It should be practical, realistic and scientifically sound.

    I was also going to make a point about how adults’ denial of the feelings of adolescents only increases distrust and sends kids into the arms of more open-minded people, but this post is too long already. 🙂

    Thanks for the interesting post, Danah!

  2. Tobit

    four really interesting questions…
    whatever we adults do is likely to have some kind of impact, and I know we have talk before about how the things we do to keep (our) children and young people safe might increase the risk. When the research team I am a part of developed a text message cbt service for people who self harm, and in another project, an online forum where health professionals and young people were able to learn from each other, a whole set of our assumptions were blown out of the water. Selfharm might be the one thing that protect someone from actually taking their life. the tension is the big data tells us that these people are up to 300 times more likely to die by suicide than someone who does not selfharm.

    you say in your post ” It stops by collectively agreeing to engage in acts of tolerance, love, bravery, and respect.”

    I love this, thanks for writing it. I want to write more about this, so will post you a link if I get round to it… but for now I think I want to say the organisation I work for (and indeed most organisations and corporations) need to heed this call as much as any one individual.

    there are a bunch of papers on page one of this search that may or may not be interesting to you or others.

  3. Jörg Schlüter

    I fear to generalize (long comment), and so just stick to experiences/me+friends today. I’ve been a transsexual teen (m2f). The stories are all similar in the scene, TS been mislabeled e.g. by youth welfare workers as ‘maybe’ mentally ill. Later many of us kinda further exploited by weak teachers who need outsiders. It’s difficult to talk about this, pedagogy/education sound so positive.

    As a teen, you felt being misunderstood by just too many sides, so you tended to give up/accept self harm or suicide as an option of dignity, your beloved secret. Classmates for whom your existence was a guarantee to survive puberty without shame, weren’t the real problem, only adults who made it this way.
    Practically all young TS I know of/met are or have been in psychiatrical treatment due to new forms of mobbing copied from ads+satire (nicknames with sexual connotation whereever they show up). Therapy/councelling may feel like further mockery – they tell you it’s your own behavior you needed to change, and by going there you admit+hurt yourself?

    Desire for death is widespread in the scene but can also be a source of strength, less likely to ever get in the direction. Part of your identity maybe, a metaphor for lost years, while the offers of initiatives usually deny the price you pay in life.
    And I ++agree, isolated “positive” results and how they are being presented, can lead to new discrimination elsewhere, as many straight people are sensitive what regards dishonesty. These side effects weren’t analysed by many studies about bullying?

  4. Janice Taylor

    Thank you Danah for writing a compelling article around bullying. It was refreshing to read someone looking at other perspectives. The problem I have had with all of the anti-bullying movements is the “solution” to the problem is to now isolate, prosecute and bully the bully. Bullying is all but a symptom of a larger psychological problem, a growing epidemic of ignorance and cycles of behaviour learned most often in the households they were raised in. Often we see the nature of bullying so deplorable we don’t think of it as a symptom, we see the “bullies” as inherently evil, should be punished by law and let’s make them feel so humiliated about themselves they will never think of doing anything “mean” again. Bullying can be (and should be used in the same breath as those who do drugs/self-medicate, those who are promiscuous, those who self-mutilate, on and on). One group punishes themselves and the other group punish others for how they feel inside, which separated from their outward symptom are dealing with the exact same feeling of unworthiness, loneliness, desperation, low self-esteem, and the list goes on. All truly sad and when we separate from our anger against those who have offended and just see if for what it is, all kids/teens are worthy of love, respect and compassion. As Ghandi once said to the man who begged him to help him with his anger, his rage over the man who took his daughter, Ghandi said “to find your peace, you must forgive the man who took her away from you”. Hardest lesson I know…

    However, we have taken bullying out of these “acting out” categories and made it a completely separate entity. Bullies and victims are both in pain, there reactions are just different. Until we can find compassion for both parties in the same breath this unfortunate “war on bullies” will continue. For the record I am not advocating their behaviour or condoning the pain caused to the victims. Yet, if we continue to divide, create a good versus evil scenario, solutions will remain few and far between. As a mother, I cannot teach my kids by telling them, do as I say not as I do..never works. Kids are too smart for that. If you cannot be the change, don’t expect change. Period. It is worthy of examination. I am advocate for programs that are not “anti” anything as they do not often solve problems they more frequently perpetuate them. For background, I completed my Honours Psychology thesis on women and self-esteem, created a currently in beta website called dedicated to positive friendship, a tool for women to find other women for friendship (no caddy behaviours, no negativity, we have an online code of conduct and rules of behaviour that are grossly needed within the internet space as well as the communities we live in). Not the place for division, a sanctuary for women to respect each other and create positive friendships.

    The sole aim of starting with adult women is for this exact reason: we cannot expect our kids to “just be friends” as long as the mothers of the world continue to fight over EVERYTHING! One just needs to turn on the TV, see a magazine, etc. to see the largest viewership of any TV program, is one they can be sure the women will fight! True equality can never be achieved as long as we continue to accept this standard of behaviour amongst our gender. Once we as women come together to show true friendship, tolerance for our differences and acceptance of kindess, these behaviours will become the norm, the new standard. All women are the mothers of the world whether you have children or not. Once we understand the gravity of this most damaging stereotype of women fighting, judging and mean girl epidemic, bullying and all forms of ignorance will continue. We (adults) created this problem and we have the power to change it. No child should ever settle with a message, “just get by”, “it gets better”, NO I shout! All kids/teens deserve to have the best life possible and we as adults better start doing something to change it. Just be Friends out there, Find one. Be One, because there really isn’t any other way to be. Thank you again for sharing your perspective.

  5. Vaneeesa Blaylock

    Thank you danah. As always an important, detailed, insightful post. You remind me of the late George Gerbner who, in an earlier media generation, turned our presumptions upside down, showing, for example that rather than the presumed stereotype that media violence makes us violent, it makes us victims and propagates a range of non-solution solutions that make for a more regulated, oppressive culture while ignoring the root causes of our social issues.

    As you articulate here, the internet which has been an often positive tool for change has been scapegoated as the problem instead of the solution. Everything is upside down. Your work is so important. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  6. Yewtree

    This is an excellent article. I was worried when I made my “It Gets Better” video that I had downplayed the effects of bullying and made it sound like it wasn’t very much, which was not my intention, and I wondered if my video was even helpful.

    The other day I posted a comment on a group on Facebook that was promoting another group that addresses this issue to ask if it was wise to mention the word “suicide” in the name of the group, because of the well-known phenomenon of copycat suicides. The moderators of the group called me an idiot, implying that I was some kind of troll, and threw me out of the group. I was really offended by this because I spend a lot of time promoting LGBT rights and so on. As you say, how about modelling the behaviours you want to promote?

  7. Anonymous

    At least where I went to school, the worst of the bullies were actually some of the most popular kids at the schools. These include some star athletes, who were also homophobic and felt the need to enforce gender norms. As star athletes they were admired at the school, both among the students and among the teachers. Some of these athletes came from upper middle class homes, and they were highly articulate in defending their actions, and also in gathering other kids to support them.

    I have some more questions for you. These questions are in response to “It stops by collectively agreeing to engage in acts of tolerance, love, bravery, and respect. ”

    1.) how do you get respect from those who already enjoy the respect of both the teachers and the students? To the extent that they engage in acts that are hurtful, what incentive do they have to change?

    2.) most teachers tend to agree with certain gender norms, and most bullies enforce those gender norms knowing that they have the support of at least some authority figures. How would you introduce tolerance to such a setting? For the authority figures, what is the incentive to change? How would you deal with authority figures who are strongly religious and who believe that the bullies are actually heroes for enforcing norms that align with traditional religious views?

    3.) “Love” is a deeply controversial word, especially as it relates to gender norms. In the USA, some states have allowed legal recognition of unions that violate traditional norms regarding sex and gender, but most states continue to ban such legal recognition, and some states have passed resolutions in support of traditional norms. What sort of love can be expected from school officials if those school officials work in states where the upper levels of the state government have publicly advocated for traditional gender norms? Would you be comfortable with “love” that is expressed in the form of “We love the sinner, though we hate the sin”.

    4.) What meaningful forms of support can be offered to children who grow up in states where the government, the school system, and the popular kids in school, all combine together in union to express disgust with the sexuality of a child at that school?

    For my part, I do not believe in the existence of “bullying” as a phenomena that exists independently of the political and cultural struggles that are playing out at every level of society. Rather, “bullying” is simply the word we chose to talk about how those struggles manifest among children. Is it the right word? Let’s say the very popular 16 year old football linebacker physically intimidates the gay kid every afternoon at lunch, and his very popular 46 year old father, who is manager the bank, refuses to promote the successful account administrator, because the father suspects that the successful account administrator is gay. If you call one action “discrimination” and the other action “bullying” then maybe the use of separate words for the same basic hate is adding confusion rather than clarity?

  8. Speculation

    What if bullying happens to a majority of young people over their school careers based on their perceived deviance from normalcy? What if only a few disturbed individuals committed suicide and set off a misguided moral crusade against bullying that ignores real mental problems these teens were suffering from?

    What if the public schooling were responsible for bullying?

    What if you never formed strong enough peer relationships to get bullied in the first place?

    What if bullying is an important phase of identity formation in young adults?
    What if bullying is an inescapable manifestation of human social dynamics?

  9. Alexandra

    Thank you for this article. I am a mom of two young girls who lived in California and Northern Italy.
    I agree with you prompting adults to take the responsibility for social behaviors.
    Bullying is a painful experience wherever you happen to live for both the parents and the children. It’s a form of power that some kids execute on others, usually in a highly competitive society. Think about the values we transmit to our kids by overloading them with assignments, extra-curriculum activities, comparing them to others, pushing them to the limits, expressing OUR high expectations about excelling in school, making them think about the future job etc. No doubt these kids are overwhelmed, sleep-deprived and scared in this world and they feel powerless and angry. They feel they don’t belong and they are afraid. That’s a “good” terrain for bullying: low self-esteem, anger and fear. The question is: how do they raise their self-esteem, substitute anger and fear with acceptance and love? My answer is through more free creative time and close relationships. Imagine having the whole week booked with the school, activities and homework? How can you figure out what you like doing in life? You are not even supposed to ask this question because there are people around to tell you exactly what you SHOULD do.
    There is another aspect that I would like to stress out. It’s honesty. Both parents and kids need to learn how to be honest and the society should enhance that model of behaving. We can’t tell our kids that they are so special and lucky and they always do a great job or criticize them by saying they are stupid. We should praise and criticize them specifically and with respect by saying for example that “you worked so hard on this assignment, I’m proud of you”. We need to be honest and show we care. They should know that life is not about winning or losing, but learning and growing and mistakes are part of that process.
    We can change the reality of our kids by first changing ourselves. Being a positive good role model for the society speaks much louder than 1000 of words to the youth.

  10. Dale

    I grew up before all of this hit the schools. In elementary school in the 70’s, I was the victim of a number of bullies for a totally different reason. My family moved quite a bit, so I was always the new kid in every school. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was one of the lucky ones. Being a new kid is a social stigma that diminishes when it is publicly exposed.

    Zero tolerance policies exist, in theory at least, to force schools to deal even-handedly with any bullying. The problem is that they force schools to deal even-handedly with any bullying that is seen or reported. Bullies get very good at not getting caught. Their victims don’t control the time and place of the bullying. Few victims want to report an incident, drawing more attention to themselves from their attackers and also opening up about the nature of the bullying. The report is never confidential because the bully knows about it and knows what really happened.

    I agree with Alexandra that the solution rests on changing ourselves. It isn’t about condemning bullying, although we should. What has to happen is showing our children, and their peers, that they are good and worthy individuals.

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