(previously published at http://www.towson.patch.com, 9/8/2012)
September 9-15, 2012, is National Suicide Prevention Week, and the link between bullying and suicide attempts is alarming. According to numerous studies by Yale University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bully victims are between two and nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. For more information about depression, anxiety, suicide prevention, and efforts to stop bullying, visit www.linesoflove.org.
The other day, I had lunch with a few teens at our high school to talk about bullying and why it’s so hard to establish a climate of kindness in our communities. I am firmly entrenched in my “middle-aged” years, and I am constantly hearing from my peers about how it was back then and how we all survived without all of this intervention and focus being placed on bullying. I began wondering: Are we too critical and oversensitive about how our children are treated in this post-9/11 era?
As we munched on baby carrots and potato chips, I asked them pointedly: What does a kid face these days that makes bullying so real to them, and why are there so many bystanders?
They immediately rattled off three big factors that were not a part of my childhood where we just got over it and moved on. Here’s what they came up with.
1. Social Media
The sudden evolution of social media has shattered all generational barriers, throwing everyone from toddlers to grannies into the world of instant communication. This has happened so quickly that adults no longer lead by the basic tenets of wisdom and experience. They are just as susceptible as children to posting and responding immediately – usually emotionally – to anyone about anything. The result? We lack leaders in how to handle the spontaneous and often “viral” roll of responses that, because they are founded in emotion and expressed in a virtual environment, are often personal and vicious.
This dissolution of filters, where emotions have replaced patience and intellect, put individuals in a dangerous and precarious path of self-destruction, where they cannot escape the obsession with, and often the onslaught of, personal reactions and attacks on others, as well as on themselves.
We are desperately trying to adapt, to find a way to cope with this new filter-less and emotion-driven mode of communication, but we are struggling between adjustment with what we say and how we receive what others say to us. Two things are happening at once: we’ve got a tidal wave of thoughts and attacks hitting us, and we’re trying to contain the flood with the little beach buckets we once used to build our sand castles. We are not prepared to handle the onslaught, and we are desperate in our responses and in our reactions, throwing back buckets of emotional rhetoric right into the eye of the storm.
2. No Place to Hide
Today’s teens never had their privacy, and adults are desperate to reclaim that solace they once enjoyed. Both generations have to make a great effort to unplug from Facebook, Twitter, texting, and smart phones, even for a short time. We are expected to be available 24/7, and when we do unplug, we are seen as the oddballs; we are forced to justify our need for quiet time, and many friends and family members express concern, worry, or even anger at our decision to unplug. Not too long ago, being incommunicative meant being isolated, difficult, and even disrespectful. Now, the same term is being used on those of us who find the strength to pull away and focus on taking the time we need to get out of the whirlwind of social streaming, if just for a short period of time. Whereas we were supposed to answer mailed letters within 3-5 days, we are now expected to answer texts in less than 3-5 minutes.
What is the result? We are constantly “on” for others and don’t give ourselves the down time we need to refresh and strengthen our own self-confidence. Instead, everything we do is measured by the number of shares or “likes” we receive, or the responses we get in 140 characters or less. We can’t possibly take care of ourselves if we are constantly “on-call.”
This is a multi-generational phenomenon, and we don’t have a defined group of individuals serving as role models showing us how to manage all of this. Anybody is vulnerable, and the consequences that are weakening our self-worth are often swiftly written and quite personal and violent.
3. Social Pressure and the Bystander Effect
Social media and instant newsfeeds have left us all numb and desensitized to tragedies and calls for help, simply because we see and hear about it all the time. Incredulously, we spend less than two seconds “liking” celebrations of publishing, babies being born, birthdays, and graduations, but do little else as we push through the updates on our phones. We offer 10-second statements of sympathy to those who have struggled, but spend more time talking about the weather (literally) or somebody’s cute dog picture.
This gloss-over approach to the news and events only makes the bystander effect (the larger the group, the less likely someone will step up to help someone in need) exponentially worse. Many crises and cries for help are simply not addressed because we have become numb, and we don’t have a strong reaction to them anymore. What complicates this phenomenon even more is that it is human nature to want to be accepted, and when the masses are numb, we are likely to be numb bystanders as well.
We are given no clearer example of this than when a video or post goes “viral” or “trends” through the various social media channels. We end up “liking” and sharing these posts because everybody else is doing it, regardless of what we really know or understand about what we are sharing. Partly, it is no different than watchng a popular reality television show that you know has little substance; everybody else is watching it, though, so you do so as well.
There is one critical difference, however, between trending television shows and numb bystanders idly watching the repeated verbal or virtual abuses of another individual: television shows are made up, distant, and have little or nothing to do with us. Tragically, we apply the same indifference to the real, personal, and upfront abuses that are clearly defined as bullying. We are losing our ability to distinguish between the two.
Today’s teens and adolescents are growing up in a time where news is instant and abundant. They have been saturated with horrific stories, over and over again. And now, they (and we as well) are no longer driven to action when we see something that is obviously wrong. One of the major factors of the bystander effect is the diffusion of responsibility. There are so many people here; surely I don’t have to be the one to stand up and do something about it. In our Facebook worlds where we have hundreds and hundreds of “friends,” it’s not hard to rationalize that, indeed, somebody else will stand up. Some of us even believe that, instead, it would be better to retweet a bullying message or get out our phones and record a fight or similar incident, instead of doing something to stop it. After all, it is far more glamorous to be an iReporter than to be that oddball who stops or prevents a tragic situation from happening.
Our teens feel that pressure to be bystanders because this is all they know. Stepping up to stop an incident of bullying, intimidation, or physical violence now requires great self-confidence, which is hard to come by these days.
As one of my students put it, for the bystanders, it’s not about being bullied as much as it is about not being accepted. This desperate need for ongoing, immediate acceptance is insatiable. It is emotion-driven, and an “unliked” cry for help in a status update can turn an emotional moment into a serious crisis. Kids end up harboring these feelings (left with no place to vent or share); that leads to a lower self-esteem, which then results in the lack of motivation to take positive risks and join other groups.
There’s no comparison between when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and what today’s adolescents and teens are facing right now. If we are going to really address the issue of bullying, we need to rethink how we first establish a foundation of strong self-worth and confidence in the era of social media and instant communication. We need to empower our children – and ourselves – with the tools to unplug, stand tall, and embrace a more balanced way of living that promotes self-wellness and an outward expression of kindness and respect.