As school districts and some states implement policies aimed at curbing the so-called “bullying epidemic,” experts continue to insist that bullying is no more common than before, cyberbullying is not a rising threat and bullying does not necessarily cause suicide.
News reports of teenagers being driven to suicide by cruel remarks in both classrooms and chatrooms have captured the public’s attention. Recently, 12-year-old Florida teen Rebecca Sedwick killed herself after being relentlessly ridiculed by two other girls, according to reports. The incident shocked the nation, and the two girls were arrested, lest they harm anyone else.
“We decided that we can’t leave her out there,” said Polk County police sheriff Grady Judd, referring to one of the accused bullies, in a statement to The Christian Science Monitor. “Who else is she going to torment, who else is she going to harass? If we can find any charges we can bring against their parents, we will.”
But there is no direct line between bullying and suicide–which is caused by a variety of factors, often including mental illness.
“It is not accurate and potentially dangerous to present bullying as the ‘cause’ or ‘reason’ for a suicide, or to suggest that suicide is a natural response to bullying,” according to stopbullying.gov.
“There is no scientific evidence that bullying causes suicide,” wrote Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute. “It is journalistically irresponsible to claim that bullying leads to suicide. Even in specific cases where a teenager or child was bullied and subsequently commits suicide, it’s not accurate to imply the bullying was the direct and sole cause behind the suicide.”
McBride wrote that Judd’s assessment was premature, given the facts of the case, and reckless.
Still, in response to news stories like Rebecca Sedwick’s suicide, several states are taking steps to crack down on teen bullying by outlawing offensive speech both in person and online. New Jersey’s anti-bullying law is the toughest in the nation, and is leading to costly lawsuits over playground insults. And Mayland officials are working directly with Facebook to police internet speech. These efforts are worrying to First Amendment scholars, who say schools have overstepped their bounds. (RELATED: Facebook.gov? Social network, Maryland team up to censor students)