The common narrative goes like this: Mean kids, usually the most popular and powerful, single out and relentlessly bully a socially weaker classmate in a systemic and calculated way, which then drives the victim into a darkness where he or she sees no alternative other than committing suicide.
And yet experts – those who study suicide, teen behavior and the dynamics of cyber interactions of teens – all say that the facts are rarely that simple. And by repeating this inaccurate story over and over, journalists are harming the public’s ability to understand the dynamics of both bullying and suicide…
Yet when journalists (and law enforcement, talking heads and politicians) imply that teenage suicides are directly caused by bullying, we reinforce a false narrative that has no scientific support. In doing so, we miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide…
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.
I don’t know this literature too well outside of reading some work by Michael Kimmel on gender and bullying and Katherine Newman et al. regarding school shootings. Some thoughts:
1. Bullying is not a good thing, even if it doesn’t lead to tragic outcomes.
2. Even if a majority of kids who are bullied don’t commit suicide, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a relationship. It might be that under certain conditions (perhaps social and environmental conditions or perhaps it has to do with more individual physiological traits) this relationship is more likely.
3. It seems that the media does not generally do very well in conveying complex stories. Perhaps it is because they don’t lend themselves to soundbites and headlines. Perhaps it is the need to find the winners, just like on ESPN. Perhaps the audience doesn’t want a complex story. But, look at any of the major events of recent years that have drawn a lot of media attention – from invading Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to the Trayvon Martin case – and you see relatively simple narratives for incredibly complex situations. Context matters.
As researchers look more at this issue, this is a reminder that the public perceptions of tragic events matter.