The deadly power of bullying: when do we stop hurting each other over differences?

Is anyone safe?  I am moved to write today and lend my voice to the growing and dangerous epidemic of bullying.  The recent tragic suicides of four young boys Seth Walsh, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, and Asher Brown have brought this topic to national attention.  This, paired with the new movie about Facebook entitled The Social Network and my recent blog post about the risks of opening up to social media makes it very evident that social media has significant influence in the feelings, emotions, self esteems, and lives of millions of people.

When I was younger, bullying mostly took the form of mean handwritten notes that were tossed across the school bus aisle, whispers in the hallway, and an occasional prank call on the home phone line.  That was scary enough.  These days in addition to the aforementioned bullying threats, there are text messages, cell phones, and every type of social media network you can think of to get your voice heard.  There can be some good that comes out of this instantaneous form of communication, such as alerting each other in the event of a natural disaster or a threat, or viewing wedding photos of a family member that lives on another continent.  But I’m afraid of the power of social media and how it makes bullying so much easier…and so much more deadly.

With much of the personal contact in communication stripped away, it is more challenging to connect with your son or daughter and see how social life is influencing them.  And with so many ways to communicate in private or masked ways online, friends and family members of victims of bullying can be in the dark about what is really going on until it is too late.  In devastating circumstances such as the recent tragedy of the Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off a bridge because he was exploited online, my heart goes out to him and his family because I know the pain that can come from bullying and I also know that this could have been prevented.

Bullying is going to get easier and more convenient, and in order to prevent more tragedy we all need to do our part to stop this vicious epidemic.  What causes bullying?  We could talk about that all day.  I see bullying as a form of a defense mechanism; in order to protect something inside that is vulnerable or unsure, bullies create a character of intimidation and meanness so that no one tries to hurt them as well.  Along with protection, bullying can be born out of misunderstanding and lack of awareness.  Many victims of bullying are picked on because they are different in some way (sexual orientation, appearance, interests, background, you name it) and to focus on this person’s uniqueness can bring the bully more social attention and “popularity”.  We need to raise awareness about bullying so that the very things that make us different and make us intimidated by one another can be exposed and brought into light…so that bullies can not use our differences to separate us any more.

Parents may wonder how they can tell if their child is being bullied or if they are bullying another person.  Some signs to look for:  if the child gets more aggressive with siblings or his/her parents, school work plummeting, change in eating patterns (especially lack of eating), withdrawing and mood changes.  The best thing to do if you fear your child is being bullied or is bullying another person is to get resources for your child.  Talk to your school counselor, or set up an appointment with a  therapist who specializes in bullying.  Reach out and ask for help, and gain awareness because your child’s and thousands of other children’s and adults’ lives depend on it.

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