For the last two years, bullying and teen suicide have been consistently hot topics. Videos have been made. Forums have been held. Celebrity quotes have been sought. Bullying has become one of the few American institutions that polls worse than Congress. Powerful people now seek the status of bully victim, stretching to brand (one might even say "name-call") their opponents bullies.
We've seen a constant stream of headlines about the problem. About the Nice Guys of OkCupid and whether it's right to jerk-shame people who have obviously low self-esteem. About the hi-larious plan Internet trolls cooked up to trick tween girls into cutting themselves. About this sad case, whose debilitating mental illness seems to fall just shy of precluding the use of a keyboard. And, horrifically, about the suicides of kids like Felicia Garcia, Josh Pacheco, Jessica Laney, Kenneth Weishuhn and Amanda Todd.
Through it all, the mantra has been "It Gets Better." Just not for them, I guess.
What is "it," exactly? Life, I suppose. The natural course of events. Certainly not a person or organization with choices, responsibilities or power. Still, we lay the burden on "it" to "get better," as if bullies fall from the sky over high school and stop on graduation day.
Call me crazy, but I think that if we really wanted to end bullying, we would... oh, I don't know... try to end bullying, both as individuals and as institutions.
A good place to start doing that might be actual bullies. And by "bullies," I don't mean "other people's kids." I mean the ones we have influence over.
Last week, I received a message from a guy I knew in high school. He wanted to say that he knew he "wasn't the nicest guy when we were growing up," that he never disliked me and wanted to apologize for anything he might have done that hurt me or anyone I cared about. He's a teacher now and struggles with name-calling between his students. He seems like a really great guy.
The thing is, I didn't really remember him doing anything to me. I do remember that he was one of maybe three or four people I didn't like in high school, and that I had good reason. But why? I recall some really annoying things he did, but nothing especially egregious. Was he the one that used that certain racial slur that one time about that one girl? Or was that someone else? I couldn't be sure.
On the other hand, I do remember, vividly and painfully, those occasions when I was especially unkind to other people. Those memories sting, not just because I know that I hurt someone else's feelings, but because I know that I was acting out of a place of insecurity and self-doubt. Just like a bully. If kids could just get this, there'd be at least a little less bullying.
And that's the thing about bullies. They are not monsters who live under bridges and emerge only to harass children at school. Bullies are usually just human beings behaving horrendously because they have problems, which surface mostly in high school because that's when people are at their most insecure.
If celebrities and activists were really more interested in addressing the problem than in securing the affection of teens, their message would be, "Attacking other people isn't really going to make you feel any better about yourself," not, "You are a victim and I am your only solace this moment." As it is now, the former is offered as an afterthought to the latter, when it is at all.
Of course, punishment for bullying should also continue to be doled out -- and a hell of a lot more severely than it currently is. And it should be given to parents, too, if it's clear that they're not trying to correct the problem. My preferred action would include mandatory community service along with parent/student counseling for repeat offenders, but I'm sure teen behavior professionals have better ideas. I'd love to hear them.
And then there are the targets. They're a tricky matter, aren't they? When it comes to suicide in particular, everyone is so afraid of blaming the victim that they won't even talk about the perpetrator. On those occasions when we do, I think it's safe to say that teens might read an air of tragic romance into it. So we focus on their victimization, which isn't helping anyone cope with conflict, adversity or their own emotions.
Nobody can blame a kid for not being equipped to handle a constant stream of abuse, of course, and I am not suggesting that they try. But we can and must get better at helping kids cope with even those situations they should never have to. Readers might be able to point to already available solutions that I, presently, cannot. If they can't, I say we start getting serious about research when it comes to teen coping.
I should note at this point that this is not meant to say that comfort shouldn't be given in abundance. Nobody can hear about a kid like Amanda Todd without wishing they could have reached out to her, given her a hug and somehow made her realize how valuable she was. If you see someone who's hurting, please do everything you can to make them feel better. But also realize that hugs, kind words and comforting videos aren't going to do much to reduce the amount of bullying any kid has to face.
If anything, this constant portrayal of bully targets as weak encourages bullying, since preying on perceived weakness is sorta what bullies do. And, even though I think we can do a lot to reduce their numbers, there will always be bullies.
That's why the greater share of responsibility for bullying must be laid at the doorsteps of the institutions in which most kids are forced to live and far too many are allowed to bully. They're the ones with the most power to intervene and, clearly, they are not doing a very good job of it.
After all, it wouldn't get better if the values system of the average high school was not the polar opposite of what it is in the outside world. What the hell good is that? There is something profoundly wrong with telling kids to wait out an environment that is supposed to be preparing them for real life because it is nothing like real life. In fact, many teachers will tell you that they have colleagues who themselves bully students.
Luckily, most educators are more interested in stopping bullies than becoming one. They just don't always have all the tools they need to properly address student behavior problems. Try as they might, a teacher cannot be a psychiatrist, a court and a policeman all in one.
Fixing the system, realistically, will require legislation. As a parent, if you were to report a school that isn't taking bullying seriously to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Education or Department of Justice (and I still suggest you do), you wouldn't likely get much of a response. We just don't have a division that can effectively help schools combat persistent behavior problems or cut funding for schools that don't even try. We should be demanding school accountability in a way that, frankly, we are not.
And these days, it isn't just schools that find it so much easier to facilitate bullying than to intervene. It's Facebook, it's Twitter, it's Tumblr and it's every other site that opens its doors to minors, exploits the content they generate and then claims to lack the resources or competence to police it. Today, technology affords the bullied teen virtually no escape.
To give you an example of just how out-of-control the situation is: Facebook recently took days to finally remove a page that aimed to incite Ugandans to violence against gays, local businessmen and pretty much anyone else who annoyed its mentally ill administrator. Recall the brutal murder of David Kato after Uganda's Rolling Stone (no relation) ran his photo for the very same purpose and you'll see why this was a very, very big deal. Since user flags couldn't convince Facebook to act, an outside petition had to pressure them to. Even then, it took days. What chance does a bullied teenage girl have against such assertive negligence?
And Facebook is far ahead of its peers when it comes to policing content. Tumblr, which seems to exist for the purposes of copyright infringement and presentation of pornography without the nuisance of model age verification, makes it predictably difficult to report any kind of misuse. When a user does manage to complain, he or she receives an absurd form letter. You won't be surprised to learn that the infamously low-brow Twitter isn't much better.
Celebrities regularly take to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr to "reach out" to the victims of bullying. If they were at all serious, they could do a hell of a lot more to help bullied kids by refusing to generate content for those platforms until they took serious action to stop facilitating it. It's not like they don't know it's happening. Is it really so much to ask someone to stop tweeting for a couple months while Twitter gets its act together? The first celebrity to do it would even get to make up a cute, final-for-now hashtag!
The government has a lot of power to help here, too. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act isn't exactly a resounding success, but even the threat of seriously policing teen social networking should be enough to scare these sites into responsible action. And "slut shaming" wouldn't be nearly as easy for bullies if it were unquestionably illegal to post a compromising picture of a private person who never intended the message to be made public.
For the lucky few out there who haven't heard of slut shaming: it's what happens when young people send compromising photos of themselves to someone they trust (seeking approval,) then find them on "grotesque sites" run by creeps (who are bitter from rejection). Just imagine how devastating that kind of deeply personal humiliation must be for a teenage girl. We can't unscrew the heads of every teenager in the world overnight, but our privacy laws can sure as hell catch up with technology.
Intentional organizational bullying is, thankfully, fading from our culture, but it hasn't gone away just yet. Like each of these institutional problems, we have the power to stop it. We're just too complacent (or repugnant) to do it.
One of the things implied when we say, "It gets better," is that the LGBT kids if focuses on can move out of socially backward towns and into more accepting environments when they grow up. And that's true, usually. But not always. This kid lives very close to me, in a pretty accepting community. Still, he's being discriminated against by a national institution. If that isn't a big guy picking on a little guy, I don't know what is. Very few Americans think it's right to deny a kid something he worked hard to achieve because he happens to be gay and, yet, every parent of a child in the Boy Scouts tolerates it. Every Scout leader tolerates it. It's shameful.
LGBT teens are also especially vulnerable to bullying in its most dangerous arena: the home. It is a very sad reality that we need a national foster system that actually knows how to deal with those situations in which the parents are the bullies. 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT and by far the leading reason is parental rejection. "It gets better," is nice, but, "Here is a foster family who won't kick you out on the street, and, yes, the state will bill your parents like any deadbeat dad," would be a hell of a lot better. This is the first thing anybody concerned about the well-being of LGBT teenagers should demand.
Speaking of LGBT teens, does nobody else find it problematic that we have so thoroughly entwined young queer identity and bully victimhood in recent years? Certainly, we know that LGBT kids are more likely to be bullied and commit suicide, but I find the degree to which we are conflating problem and identity troubling.
Some people will misread this as an attack on the It Gets Better Project. It isn't. I think that they're doing something great. When someone is hurting and in a dark place, a caring, optimistic voice can mean so very much. It's important to have. It probably saves lives. And, though I wish they would expand their focus a bit, I think they're absolutely essential.
But in an age of weight-shaming, slut-shaming, rampant teen homelessness and live online suicide, platitudes cannot even be considered a beginning of the struggle against bullying or teen suicide. We need to get better, not wait around for "it" to do it for us.
The author would like to encourage parents and educators to keep the following numbers handy: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255,) The Kristin Brooks Center Hopeline (1-800-442-4673 for English and 1-800-784-2432 for Spanish) and the Trevor Project's Lifeline for LGBT youth (1-866-488-7386) . He also urges them to visit Stopbullying.gov for more information.