Tag Archives: facts

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.


Sites that Misuse Bullying Facts and Figures In Lots of Wrong Ways (For the Wrong Reasons)

Sad phoneIce cream sales rise dramatically in warmer months. So do incidents of sexual assault. Therefore, we can argue that eating ice cream causes assaults, right?

Wrong. We can’t make this connection because correlation (when two variables appear to relate) doesn’t imply causation.

In this case, there’s clearly a third variable at play. In this case, that would be hot weather. We know people eat more ice cream in the summer. And we know that the rate of sexual assaults (and of domestic violence and other kinds assaults as well)  also rises during warmer weather. But there is no other plausible linkage between frozen treats and rape.

Statistics for dummies. This is covered in the first class of every intro course on statistics. And yet we regularly see numbers being twisted to prove all sorts of theories. The correlation fallacy is just one of the many ways that can happen.

What am I so worked up about? This infographic, featured on Mashable July 8th. Some of the information (such as the suicide statistics) seems quite frankly out of whack with what we know about the subject. In other cases, the information is twisted to imply causation where none can be scientifically established (such as the claim that rising Internet use has caused a rise in teen suicides when CDC data actually shows a drop since 1995). It doesn’t say anything about the ways kids have used the Internet to reach out to others in danger of attempting suicide or self-harm, or even to save someone in imminent danger.

On the whole, the infographic builds an alarming argument about bullying and teen Internet use based on spurious / or unproven connections. And like many oversimplified arguments, this one omits a lot of positive connections as well, such as the ways technology can build online support communities for isolated LGBT youth or others or offer sound, non-judgmental information about teen sexuality, mental health issues and more. There is no mention of how kids can use technology to learn animation, advocate for causes they support, or connect to others in positive ways.

A highly respected member of an online group of youth risk experts reached out to the marketing team behind this infographic and expressed her concern. Happily, she was reassured that the errors were unintentional and the infographic would be revised. We are waiting to see if and when they do this, but at the time of writing it was still featured on Mashable and almost certainly going viral. I will post the revised infographic when it is released.

Whenever someone offers inaccurate information like this, you need to wonder why. In this case, the infographic was sponsored by an online educational organization unconnected to bullying. It seems they want to benefit from click-throughs to their site by using hot search terms like cyberbullying and teens. This could be a genuinely socially responsible move if well-researched and handled in a responsible way. But it’s so frustrating to watch those with unrelated motives and social agendas trying to profit from the genuine concern parents, kids and educators have with the issue of bullying.

Another site (whose URL I refuse to post, because I don’t want to drive any traffic their way) fills their site with all sorts of ambiguous anti-bullying talk as a way to sell anti-bullying “powerbands” and concert tickets at $20 a pop. No mention is made of how the money collected will contribute to bullying prevention or awareness.

It’s so dispiriting to see how a hot social issue like bullying gets subverted to the marketing of unrelated things or gets used as a money-making initiative. This kind of profiteering goes beyond bad judgement — it also fans the flames of hysteria when clear-headed thinking is most needed.