Saturday, August 5, 2017

Bullying, Teen Suicide, and Other Societal Plagues

Image result for bullying graphics

My heart bleeds for anyone whose life has been significantly harmed by bullying of any kind. All of us have probably been bullied to some degree, but some of us have suffered far more than others have. I was lucky. While I had "brainy-and- physically-weak nerd" metaphorically scrawled all over me, I came of age in a smallish university town that might best be described as an intellectual enclave. The jocks, the snobbish girls, and even the thugs existed in my hometown, but they were outnumbered by studious types and didn't have the momentum or power that those same groups had in other places.

Bullying in general, and cyber-bullying in particular, have led to considerable heartache for many young people, and have led or contributed to dire consequences for some. Consensus as to where lies the rightful blame is difficult to establish. In the end, except perhaps in a court of law, blame  may not be all that important, anyway. For those whose lives have been lost to this horrendous plague, we can only mourn. For those whose youths were tarnished by the same, we can only hope that the empowerment of adulthood more than compensates for lost innocence in what should have been the proverbial wonder years. 

Society as a whole is working hard to educate young people regarding the dire consequences of cruelty to others. Parents, physicians and counselors, school personnel, child and adolescent advocates, and others strive to educate themselves and colleagues about both the overt and the less conspicuous signs that a young person may be suffering from the effects of bullying or may himself or herself be guilty of perpetrating acts of bullying against others. The latter group -- those guilty of perpetrating acts of bullying against others -- has been somewhat tougher to identify and address. Parents are, as a group, not especially reluctant to admit or to accept when their offspring are victims of force, threat, or coercion with the intent of abuse, intimidation, aggressive domination, or ostracism [paraphrase of author's definition of bullying]. Acts of wrongdoing don't occur in a vacuum, however; if one person's child is a victim of bullying, another person's child  (or --think Cain and Abel here-- another of that person's children) -- violated society's rules of fair play. While parents are to be applauded for recognizing and responding to the victimization of their children, they need to be equally vigilant in recognizing and responding to acts of perpetration by their offspring. 

Thirty-or-so years ago , young people were expected to handle their own social interactions. Adults presumed that children and youth possessed the abilities to work things out for themselves. If a particular young person seemed to be a frequent target or victim of any sort of persecution, adults assumed that the young person was doing something to invite such mistreatment, or, at the very least, was responding to it in such a way as to invite further mistreatment.  And while there might have been a shred of truth to the idea that victims were not often randomly selected, and usually there was a reason [I'm not suggesting it was necessarily ever a good reason, but often there was a reason] as to why a given kid was singled out for bullying, those reasons, under the microsope of more than a generation's worth of analysis, do not hold up as anything resembling justification for the torture suffered by countless youth. 

We, as a society, have evolved, and are no longer, in most cases, leaving known victims of bullying to fend for themselves. While  the approaches may vary greatly in effectiveness, most schools have, at the very least, anti-bullying policies in effect. Children are encouraged to speak up or to alert adults if they or anyone else are being victimized by bullies. Most parents, one would hope, feel sufficiently empowered to speak to school authorities if their children are victimized by acts of bullying. Children are told to inform adults if it is happening to them. Teachers are told to inform their superiors of acts of bullying. Those charged with supervising groups of young people are educated as to how to identify less conspicuous manifestations of bullying that might have gone undetected in previous eras. All of these measures are necessary and are the very least we as a responsible society must do to safeguard our young people. But are these measures enough?

Beginning earlier but peaking in the 1940's and 1950's, the disease of poliomyelitis, known alternately as infantile paralysis and simply polio, reached epidemic proportions, killing or paralyzing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year.  Those who were not afflicted lived in fear of the dreaded disease. Clearly something had to be done.

What was actually done to fight polio?  Medical science has yet to discover an actual cure. Treatment is still aimed at symptom relief. Polio is caused by a virus, but we lack a specific retroviral drug to combat the disease. Experts discovered that the disease is transmitted through fecal-oral contamination, through oral-oral contamination, or through nasal-oral or nasal-nasal contamination.  It was certainly efficacious for the medical authorities to know how poliomyelitis was transmitted, but that knowledge alone wasn't sufficiently effective in thwarting polio. Yet we don't have a great deal of polio around today. What accounted for the disease becoming essentially a non-issue at least in developed nations?

As treatment and transmission were addressed by others, Jonas Salk and Alber Sabin were hard at work to develop vaccines, which would protect those who took the vaccines against the disease. Salk's injectable version of the vaccine became available in 1955. Sabin's oral version debuted in 1961. Variations of the vaccines are still in use today and are the reason a disease that once claimed hundreds of thousands of victims each year had only thirty-six reported cases in 2016. * 

How, then,  can the principle of inocculation against poliomyelitis be applied to the concept of bullying? Wouldn't it be nice if every child could be given an injection or a vial of oral medication that would prevent them from ever being tormented by bullies? While the disease of polio would seem to be every bit as complex as is the plague of bullying, the solution is obviously not quite so simple as giving a child a dose of medication at a few carefully spaced intervals in his or her infancy and childhood and expecting it to effectively combat the problem . . . or is it? A vaccine to combat the effects of bullying that can be administered orally or by injection does not exist, at least within the current constraints of medical science. The prevention of bullying cannot presently, if ever, be carried out with the distribution of mass-marketed containers of inactivated or weakened strains of the bullying virus. Is there, however, a way that we can metaphorically inactivate the potentially ravaging effects of bullying in our young people? Would it hurt to try? Can we afford not to try?

It would make sense to start with what we know presently about the very most damaging effects of bullying. What's the very worst thing that can ever happen as a result of bullying? We could probably agree that it would be loss of life: either a victim of bullying takes his or her own life, or he or she commits an act of violence against others after having been victimized to the point of not knowing what else to do. What caused the bully to reach such a state of desperation? Was it repeated text messages telling the victim that he was no longer welcome on this planet? Was it months or years of social media harassment? Or was it face-to-face acts of force, threats, or, coercion? Identifying a pathogen, whether physical or symbolic, would seem to be the first step in devising a future preventive measure against it.

Those charged with caring for, educating, and socializing today's young people are, for the most part **  doing their best to deal with bullying as it occurs.   We recognize that it is a very real concern. We're not looking the other way whenever it happens.  While there is room for improvement in our response to bullying, for the most part we're confronting it as we see it. We're also trying to teach our children not to be bullies. 

But what can we do for children that will cause the words of bullies to have less impact on them? How can we tell children, years before they ever hear the ugly words of bullies, that the bullies they will oneday hear will be liars? That, despite what any bully will one day tell them, they will not be stupid, skanky, or worthless?  How can we firmly plant in our children's minds that, no matter what any future bully says to the contrary, the world will not be a better place without them?***

I shall carry the polio analogy a bit further at this time. My implications here are radical, I acknowledge. Still,  if we wage a war against bullying through mass education yet ignore another key element in the very most devastating of potential effects of cyber-bullying, what we have done is akin to vaccinating our children against polio, yet knowingly allowing polio-contaminated fecal matter into the very areas in which we prepare and store the food that our children will eat. The very best of vaccines are still only ninety per cent or so effective. Would you trust your child's polio vaccine so much that you would allow polio- contaminated feces to be brought into your kitchen?

While a child or teen, in order to remain safe, may possibly need a cell phone in his or her possession when he or she is out in the world so that parents may contact the child at any time or vice versa, or so that the child may summon help as needed, the child does not have that same need when he or she is with parents in the home. If another kid really needs to reach your child, perhaps the kid could do so by telephoning via the family line. Likewise, perhaps we need to re-think the concept of each child using his or her laptop in the privacy of his or her room.  Perhaps all computers should be used in common areas, and perhaps they should be either locked away or password-protected to disable use when parents are not present.

It is naive even to imagine that we could ever go back to the way things used to be, with a single family computer and one phone line. On the other hand, we know that, in part anyway, suicides have happened when bullying found its way into the victims' homes through technology. It's a question each parent must ask and answer for himself, but if you asked the parent of any child who was driven to kill himself as a result of cyber-bullying if he or she would, if do-overs were possible, eliminate social media and texting from the home, what do you think the answer would be? 

Furthermore, does any minor child really need Facebook or any parallel social medium?

I'm a mere twenty-two years old. I hold a few lousy bachelor's degrees but am still almost a year away even from having completed my formal education. My real-life experience is practically nonexistent.  I've never had even a truly significant romatic relationship, much less a child. At this point, someone with far greater knowledge, wisdom,  experience, and expertise needs to confiscate my platform. I haven't a clue as to how to implement the suggestions I've offered, but someone out there does. The problem will probably never be eliminated entirely, but we're going to continue to lose our children and youth at an alarming rate until this issue is adequately addressed.

* vaccines are, at best, only ninety per cent [or so] effective. If parents become either stupid or selfish or both in regard to having their children vaccinated against polio, we could easily face another epidemic.

** Some are obviously doing a better job than are others.

*** "Just say no to drugs" had limited success, but maybe "Just say no to bullying" will be more successful.


  1. I don't miss being a kid. I got bullied a lot for a couple of years. I am glad the Internet wasn't a thing when I was growing up.

    1. I'm glad to be through with it all, too, and I wouldn't go back and do it over again if I had the chance.

      I'm not totally sure why they're committing suicide now more than was done in previous generations.