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)
But many experts say the problem of bullying isn’t as serious as some states’ heavy-handed policies suggest. For one thing, bullying is not getting worse. Studies suggest that rates of bullying have either stayed constant or decreased, according to stopbullying.gov.
And while cyberbullying is the current go-to moral panic among local reporters, studies show that very few teens are actually impacted by it.
“There is very little scientific support to show that cyberbullying has increased over the past five to six years, and this form of bullying is actually a less frequent phenomenon,” wrote Dan Olweus, a psychologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, in his 2012 study of cyberbullying.
While it’s true that some teenagers are impacted by bullying — about 1 in 4, according to studies — there isn’t enough evidence to justify strong new laws aimed at curbing it. Nor is there evidence that the problem is worsening, or that technology has caused it to take a new and especially insidious form.
“Whether it’s the proliferation of cars, rock n’ roll music on the radio, video games, cell phones, or social media, we find ways to demonize technology’s impact on the young people who embrace it with such enthusiasm,” wrote McBride. “Over time, we look back and marvel at our own hysteria.”