A member of the Poynter Institute argues the media narrative that bullying leads to suicide is too simple:
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.
A study from the most recent American Sociological Review is getting attention because of its finding that popular kids in middle and high school are more likely to be mean:
[A] paper released Tuesday in the American Sociological Review, which found that the more central you are to your school’s social network, the more aggressive you are as well — unless you’re at the top of the heap, in which case you’re more likely to give your peers a break.
“By and large, status increases aggression, until you get to the very top,” said the study’s lead author, UC Davis sociologist Robert Faris. “When kids become more popular, later on they become more aggressive.”
Three larger trends seem to be converging in this research: analyzing social networks of teenagers/emerging adults while also looking into bullying/aggressive behavior.
The network analysis is based on a measure common now to sociological surveys and research:
Faris and UC Davis sociology Professor Diane Felmlee followed almost 4,000 middle and high school students in three North Carolina counties, asking each child to name their five best friends. They were also asked to identify up to five people they bullied and five classmates who picked on them.
The researchers mapped each student’s popularity based on their personal relationships and compared it to aggressive behavior.
I’m curious to know if this analysis would also apply to adults.
Cyber-bullying has drawn a lot of recent attention from commentators, schools, and parents. A new research study in the Journal of Adolescent Health argues that in contrast to in-person bullying where both the bully and bullied are more likely to be depressed, in cyber-bullying, it is the victim who is more likely to be depressed. The research examined “7,500 students from 43 countries.”
The researchers argue this finding may be due to the unique traits of cyber-bullying:
A big reason for the depression could be that word spreads faster and more easily online: Blog posts, comments and e-mails can be written anonymously and readily copied and pasted, said researcher Ronald Iannotti, a staff scientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Once made, such posts may survive indefinitely.
“Cyber-bullying goes on, it persists,” Iannotti told MyHealthNewsDaily. “So not only does it happen the first time you’ve seen it, but you know it’s still out there circulating.”
Unlike traditional face-to-face bullying, where there is a limited number of witnesses, cyber-bullying can have an audience of hundreds or thousands of online bystanders. The anonymity of the poster can add to the victim’s stress because there’s no easy way to get the person to stop, Iannotti said.
While this may explain why those who are bullied suffer more from depression, it doesn’t explain why the bullies feel less depressed when their bullying takes place online. Perhaps because they are able to remain anonymous and can’t feel any backlash or public pressure if no one knows who they are?