This week we are going to be covering very sensitive topics: bullying, mental health and suicide. We want to include a content warning for this week’s discussion, these topics can be triggering and unsettling, so please only engage if you feel comfortable.
Before we jump into this week’s perspectives, let's define some terms. Bullying is defined as aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Most bullying creates or upholds an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim and does not occur in a single incident, but is instead reoccurs.
There are three main types of in person bullying:
- Verbal bullying that presents as teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting and threatening to cause harm
- Social or relational bullying typically presents as leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children to stay away, spreading rumors about someone and embarrassing them in public.
- Physical bullying involves hurting someone or their possessions. This includes hitting/kicking, spitting, tripping/pushing, making rude hand gestures or taking/breaking someone's things.
These types of bullying can happen in conjunction with one another or separately, but each action is a valid form of bullying and is NEVER okay.
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over any online medium, it can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or on social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else with the intent to embarrass or humiliate this person. Sexually inappropriate cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.
The main characteristics of cyberbullying is that the abuse is consistent, the comments are permanent, and secretive because most of the bullying is happening virtually. Responsible adults, like teachers and parents, find it particularly challenging to notice cyber bullying because of this.
Recent statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice, have shown that 15% of students in high school report to experience cyberbullying and 19% report to have been bullied in school. Bullying is a systemic issue and it is also a public health problem. Bullying is strongly linked with depression, anxiety and even suicide.
What do we mean when we are talking about suicide? The CDC released a report on defining suicide-related behaviors include self-directed death, suicide attempts are non-fatal self-directed potentially injurious behavior with the intent to end their life, and suicide ideation which is thinking about, considering or planning for suicide. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a 2019 report indicating that suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds. In the United States, the CDC released the statistic that suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers and a recent CDC study found that teen suicide jumped 56% from 2007 to 2017. These statistics can help us understand why it is so important that we are having conversations on these topics today, because the more we talk about it, the more we can help!
Here are six perspectives to consider this week:
1. More Than Just a Cold Shoulder
We have all seen the headlines about an increase in young adult and teenage mental health issues, from rises in national depression averages to increases in anxiety disorders. In fact, 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year. There is growing research on the link between mental health disorders and bullying; the CDC stated in a recent report: Bullying has serious and lasting negative effects on the mental health and overall well-being of youth involved in bullying in any way including: those who bully others, youth who are bullied, as well as bully-victims. Bullying of any kind is a type of abuse and abuse has been strongly correlated with creating mental health issues. This issue is affecting our school systems on a national level because currently high school students with significant symptoms of depression are more than twice as likely to drop out of school compared to their peers. The CDC also reports that in 2017, 6.7% of students did not go to school because of reported bullying, threats and feeling unsafe. Although there is still no conclusive research on the correlation between mental health struggles and bullying, a common side effect of bullying is poor self-perception and self-esteem which is a leading symptom of depression. Surprisingly enough, a 2014 study found that ‘the bully’ was 3.31% more likely to have mental health issues. These findings emphasize the importance of providing psychological support to not only victims of bullying but bullies as well. The CDC reports that any type of bullying increases a child’s risk for anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, academic problems, and there’s a significant connection between bullying and suicide-related behaviors.
2. On the Internet, the Coast is Never Clear
Cyberbullying is insidious (ie. gradual but with harmful effects) and intrusive because it can happen online at any moment. A 2010 survey that interviewed 1963 US middle schoolers found that children who experienced traditional bullying or cyberbullying, as either an offender or a victim, had more suicidal thoughts and were more likely to attempt suicide than those who had not experienced such forms of peer aggression. Our partners at DoSomething.org ran an awareness and advocacy campaign to bring attention to the harms and prevalence of cyberbullying. They released the following statistics: About 37% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have been bullied online and 30% report that it has happened more than once. Today, 95% of teens in the U.S. are online, and now that we live in the era of smartphones and social media, cyber bullying is more accessible than ever. Recent reports have reported that girls are 3 times more likely to experience cyberbullying than their male peers. Within the 2016 to 2017 school year, 21% of girls in middle and high school reported being bullied online or by text message, compared with less than 7% of boys. The NYTimes noted that a raise in cyberbullying could also be the result of an increase in “bullying tactics” such as creating fake social media accounts either to impersonate the victim or harass them anonymously. Child psychologist, Dr. Peyton shares “People are emboldened behind a computer screen and things can escalate very quickly, often turning into a mob of children making cruel comments,” and concludes, “victims can’t get a break from the harassment since the bullies can access the internet anytime.” What we need to understand is that 60 percent of young adults are not telling caregivers that they are being cyberbullied, and this lack of knowledge makes it challenging for adults to intervene and help. Common warning signs for peers and adults are: significant decrease/increase in online activity, becoming withdrawn, anxious or social avoidant, secretive online behavior, difficulty concentrating and acting upset/mad when online.
3. Not All Equal in the Eyes of the Bully
Another perspective to consider in the conversation about bullying are the marginalized identities that are specifically targeted. Statistics from a 2017 CDC study shows that race and ethnicity can play a major role in targeted bullying. A 2016 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that 25% of African-American students, 22% of Caucasian students, 17% of Hispanic students, and 9% of Asian students reported being bullied at school in the United States. Young adults with disabilities are often overtly targeted by bullies, and a 2012 study found that 35.3% of students with behavioral and emotional disorders, 33.9% of students with autism, 24.3% of students with intellectual disabilities, 20.8% of students with health impairments, and 19% of students with specific learning disabilities face higher levels of bullying victimization. Lastly, LGBTQ+ youth are by majority the group that experience the most bullying, to a degree that is now a public health issue. Current statistics from a 2013 National School Climate Survey share: 74.1% of LGBT students were verbally bullied in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 55.2% because of their gender expression. 36.2% of LGBT students were physically bullied in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 22.7% because of their gender expression and 49% of LGBT students experienced cyberbullying in the past year.
4. Instagram is Now 'Restricting' Bullies
Instagram recently implemented a new feature to help reduce incidents of harassment or bullying on the app. DoSomething.org shared that Instagram is a social media platform where most young people report experiencing cyberbullying, with 42% of those surveyed experiencing harassment on the platform. In response, Instagram has taken to giving users experiencing harassment the ability to “Restrict” another user. Once you restrict someone, their comments on your posts become visible to that one person. You can choose to make a restricted person’s comments visible to others by approving their comments. Additionally, "restricted" people won’t be able to see when you’re active on Instagram or when you’ve read their direct messages. This new feature will help victims of cyberbullying prevent online humiliation, while also ensuring that the perpetrator does not retaliate. Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center offers that a multilayered approach is the only way to combat cyberbullying. They propose that a combination of parental action, school guidelines, awareness campaigns, and structural changes on social media apps are all needed to reduce incidences. It’s great that Instagram is taking the first step in putting in preventative features to avoid escalating cyberbullying situations. Yet, some critics are not convinced that this feature holds the answer to ending bullying on the app. The Verge calls the feature “a shadow ban” and argues that Instagram already provides the ability to block accounts and comments. It begs us to consider whether Instagram should also be including clear community guidelines to help prevent cyberbullying. What are your thoughts?
5. Media, You Can Do Better!
Another perspective to consider is the role of the media in sensationalizing and mis-portraying bullying and suicide. This past summer, news of Michelle Carter, a teenager who was involved with the suicide of her late boyfriend Conrad Roy, took over the media. It seemed like everyone had an opinion on Michelle’s guilt or innocence. The media’s emphasis on Michelle’s actions seemed to take away from a needed focus on the underlying issues of teenage mental illness, noticing suicide ideation and effective intervention. Researchers have been trying to understand the underlying causes of the rising rate in teen suicides. Some have attributed it to changing social structures, lack of community and the rise of social media and smartphones, while others have pointed to bullying and less sleep. Others have problematized the way the media covers high-profile celebrity suicide cases and the popularity of TV shows, like 13 Reasons Why. It is important to note that while social media and the internet lend themselves to cyberbullying and stress, they also offer immediate help via Mental Health and Suicide Hotlines, mental health resources, and access to text and chat support systems. Ursula Whiteside, a researcher with the University of Washington offers that, “it’s a complex problem with no easy answers so far.” As part of recent federal legislation, school systems are starting to offer ‘gatekeeper’ training for teachers to be able to notice warning signs and resources for parents and guardians. Current research suggests that informed adults and community support can help with prevention and awareness, increasing the safety and improving the well-being of young adults. So, let’s come together, stay informed and support one another by having these challenging conversations.
6. 13 Reasons Why, Where, When, Who, How?
Many people believe that the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why has really helped open up the conversation around bullying, mental health and suicide for young adults today. The show depicts Liberty High’s polarizing school environment where toxic masculinity and bullying are the norm. The first season showcases a scene that graphically depicts the main character, Hannah Baker’s, suicide and the scene garnered much controversy from psychologists, parents and young adults alike. A few experts felt that the scene showcases that teenage suicide is a real, on-going tragedy in our society. Others felt that the show as a whole helps in displaying how bullying and sexual assault can lead someone to depression and sometimes even suicide. Many parents and experts felt that the scene was incredibly graphic and triggering for an at-risk audience and petitioned to have the scene removed from the streaming platform. After a year of effort from advocacy initiatives and discussions with Netflix, they finally took the scene down. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness published an Op-Ed explaining how and why the show’s depiction of mental health illnesses could ultimately be hurting our teens today. The NAMI stresses that the show fails to accurately show that 90% of inidviduals who commit suicide have an underlying mental illness, and that suicide is very often preventable if a person receives the appropriate care. This has left me wondering: "Is there such thing as a right way to portray suicide in television shows?" What do you think?
Want to continue the conversation about toxic masculinity? Check out our content throughout the week and submit your points of view about the topic here. Let's keep the conversations going!
Please Note: If you are in a life-threatening situation, please do not use this site. Call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or use these crisis resources on the My Wellbeing website. If your issue is an emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
- Crisis Text Line: text “Hello” to 741741
- The Lifeline: call 800-273-TALK (8255)
- National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: call 800-656-4673
- More on how to Get Help Now