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What can we learn from Amanda Todd’s tragic bullying-related suicide?

Amanda Todd's call for helpI’m not sure what is harder to take – the heart-wrenching video 15-year-old Amanda Todd posted about her years of bullying, or the many hateful comments that have been posted online since her suicide.

It’s enough to make you want to give up on kids today. To lock away your own children’s laptops, iPads and smartphones. To feel despair about human nature.

But we can’t do that. We can’t stick our heads in the sand. We do all kids a disservice by letting a few bad seeds taint a whole generation. And we can’t properly prepare our kids for a wired world by (ineffectively) banning their access to the Internet. To truly help our children, and to honour Amanda Todd’s memory in the wake of this tragedy, we need to stay focused on some very important points. As a parenting and risk-prevention expert, I’d like to offer some related thoughts to parents, educators and caring people haunted by this (and other) bullying-related deaths.

Most kids don’t bully; most kids aren’t bullied. When tragic bullying-related suicides occur, the media coverage can fan the flames of moral panic. (Click here to tweet this). We clearly need to take this issue very, very seriously, but we also need to remain level-headed.  Hysterical, fear-motivated responses include passing thoughtless and ineffective “zero-tolerance” anti-bullying policies at schools or banning the use of social media at school instead of teaching good digital citizenship.

A 2011 Pew Internet study found that 69% of teens report their peers are mostly kind to one another online. It is true that 15% report being harassed or bullied themselves online, but we need to remember that ” 7 in 10 kids are mostly experiencing kindness, not rudeness and certainly not bullying or harassment” (from bullying expert Larry Magid’s Huffington Post piece).

This does not in any way mean we don’t need to treat true bullying with the utmost care, support and seriousness. Just that we can’t let these tragedies come to define all childhood or teen interaction.

Not all rudeness or cruelty is bullying. This isn’t just about semantics. When governments and schools are grappling with anti-bullying policies and protocols, we need to understand the difference because it can have serious implications for how it is handled. Bullying is generally distinguished from other kinds of aggression (verbal or non-verbal, direct or indirect) by several elements, including intentionally hurtful actions, its repetitive or on-going nature, the general lack of remorse by the bully(or bullies), blaming of the victim (“why can’t she take a joke?” “she’s a slut so she deserved it,” “he takes everything so seriously,” etc.) and an underlying struggle for social power.

A kid who hits another in a schoolyard confrontation may not be a bully. A one-off mean comment on a Facebook page may not be bullying. Those are hurtful, anti-social behaviours that need to be dealt with, of course, but they are not necessarily bullying.

Kids who are bullied may not advocate for themselves or tell anyone. Amanda Todd’s story is terribly insightful. She didn’t report on the bullies. She ran away and hid in a ditch so teachers coming to her aid wouldn’t find her. She didn’t press charges for her assault. I don’t blame her for any of this — who would want to label oneself a victim? The implied powerlessness and humiliation of accepting one’s victimhood can be more additional trauma than many bullied kids are willing to accept.

We need to understand this in order to identify and better help those kids (especially older children and teens) who understand the social implications of being labelled a bullying victim. Many don’t want to disappoint their parents. And the horrible truth is that sometimes adults who get involve unwittingly make things worse for their kids by seeking immediate consequences or public retribution for the aggressors.

So what do they need? First of all, they need validation from trusted adults. Simple, non-judgemental and compassionate acceptance of the stories they have to tell. Look at all the kids and teens who had to go online with their note cards to tell their stories because they felt unable to voice it in person to the adults who loved them. Then they need emotional and practical support. Having mom or dad angrily march into the principal’s office seeking revenge on the bullies is likely not at the top of their list.

We must make the teaching of good digital citizenship a priority in our schools. Technology is not the enemy. It offers amazing, creative and productive possibilities to our children, and using it well will be necessary in their lives.

But it also offers up many pitfalls. Amanda Todd talks about a critical error she made in flashing her breasts on a webcam when she was 12 years old, and how this image was used to blackmail and torment her for years. Schools and parents must teach their children about the hyper-public and infinitely replicable nature of the Internet. Webcams, Skyping and Facetiming should be allowed only in common rooms. We need to review our teen’s Facebook accounts with them (not just friend them and hope for the best).

Bullying is almost never the sole reason for suicide. It may be a catalyst or the last straw, but on its own it won’t put most kids at risk for killing themselves. Almost all bullying-related suicides have other serious elements in play — depression, addiction, mental health issues, etc. Again, bullying may play a key precipitating role. And this is not in any way about blaming the victim. These kids and teens need caring, capable support and counselling. They deserve to live free of cruelty and harassment. They need trusted adults to help them figure out what they can’t manage on their own.

Why is it important to understand that bullying alone doesn’t cause suicides? Because, as much as we need to support all kids who need help, we also need to remain level-headed. Panicked parents of kids who have been targeted by bullies may not be their kids’ best advocates when they see only the worst-case scenarios.

My heart goes out to Amanda Todd’s family and friends. She didn’t deserve the years of pain she endured. Her mother has called for her daughter’s death to be a wake-up call for more effective, proactive legislation in British Columbia. Let us all honour her memory with more effective education, awareness and understanding about the nature of bullying.

 

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