Bullying? Not on My Watch.

Once again, bullying is in the news—this time because of a controversial film that documents the daily lives of five young bullying victims. You’ve probably heard of Bully because of the debate as to whether it should be rated R or PG-13. (I understand that in order to compromise, some profanity was cut from the film to earn it a PG-13 rating.)

Bully painfully exposes the suffering that young people feel when they are tormented—often in shockingly cruel ways—by their peers. In my opinion, what is happening today in terms of bullying is something that everyone in our country needs to brush up on and take very seriously. In fact, I believe that bullying is “the” teenage problem of our day, and that it must be tackled head-on by all of us (just as drunk driving was years ago).

Simply put, allowing bullying to continue in light of what we now know about its consequences is simply unacceptable. Just look at these staggering facts from www.bullyingstatistics.org:

  • Almost 30 percent of young people participate in bullying behaviors or are bullying victims.
  • Every day, around 160,000 students do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied.
  • Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their non-bullied peers to consider suicide.

Also, research has shown that adults who suffered from childhood bullying live much smaller lives. The fear, social anxiety, shame, low self-esteem, and anger that bullying causes can rear their heads throughout adulthood, often at crucial moments, causing individuals who were once bullied to stick with “easy,” “safe,” or “defensive” choices instead of those that might prove most beneficial. There are also definitive links between childhood bullying and adult depression, anger management problems, and aggression.

And most unfortunately of all, some teens and even preteens actually do kill themselves because of the torment they undergo. I don’t know about you, but when I turn on the news I expect to hear about corporations going bankrupt and politicians caught in scandals. I don’t expect to read fairly frequent headlines these days proclaiming that a teenager has committed suicide because he or she was bullied.

In part because of all of this media attention, schools and communities are providing more and more resources for bullied kids, and they’re also instituting zero-tolerance policies aimed at the bullies themselves. But too many victims are still slipping through the cracks. Why? I think the answer is that we’re putting too much responsibility on the young people we’re trying to protect. Our current approach revolves around requiring kids to tell on each other—and it’s not as effective as we hoped.

For one thing, as I remember from my own days of being victimized, kids who are being bullied often lack the self-esteem and confidence to stand up for themselves and let adults know what’s happening. They also worry that turning a tormentor in will make them new targets or intensify the former level of bullying. It’s also important to note that today’s technology means that bullied kids can never totally escape their tormentors. Vicious and hurtful behavior can continue 24/7 thanks to social media sites, texting, and emails, which increases the sense of powerlessness and fear that bullied children feel.

So, how can we improve the situation? I think that we need to spark a culture-wide revolution that makes bullying behaviors as unacceptable as lying, cheating, stealing, and as I said before, drunk driving. (Hopefully, Bully will help to provide the spark America needs.) Again, think about how MADD dramatically changed the way our country approached driving while intoxicated. Once upon a time, getting behind the wheel after a few drinks was actually fairly common and not that big of a deal (just as bullying has been seen as “a part of growing up”). Now, driving under the influence is reprehensible, unacceptable, and even criminal. Bullying needs to undergo that same sort of image change.

I hope that eventually laws, school policies, and public opinion will totally take away the “cool” image that often comes with a young person’s social power. Until that happens, we can at least make sure that our own kids know bullying is something that will cost them dearly in their own homes. Yes, as parents we all have the responsibility to let our children know in no uncertain terms that bullying behaviors will not be tolerated.

So, if you haven’t had the “bullying talk” with your kids, don’t wait. And make sure they understand exactly what the definition of bullying is (it is whenever one individual feels upset by another at least two times, whether it be physically, verbally, or even “just” via social media or text) and just how serious it—and its effects—can be. And if you think your children are mature enough to handle it, consider seeing Bully with them and using it as a tool to spark discussion. I truly believe that if we all begin to treat bullying as the deadly serious issue it is, meaningful social change can happen soon.