10/11/2011 08:54 am ET | Updated Dec 11, 2011

Stand with Lady Gaga to End Bullying

It seems a week can't go by without news of another teen committing suicide due to being bullied. From Jamey Rodemeyer of New York, to James Robinson of Nevada, to Devon Pritt of Indiana, bullied teens are taking their own lives at an alarming rate.
Unfortunately, many parents, educators, and other adults believe bullying is just part of being a kid--that it serves a useful purpose to prepare youth for the trials and tribulations of adult life. Nothing could be further from the truth! Studies have shown that bullying is a serious problem and leads to many negative effects for victims, including suicide. For example, did you know...

• According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year. And for every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over fourteen percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost seven percent have attempted it.
• Bully victims are between two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University.
• A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.
• According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.

Findings like this are unacceptable! So what's the solution? I agree with and support what Lady Gaga suggested when she tweeted, "Bullying must become illegal. It is a hate crime." But how do we enact such a law?
Perhaps a good way to start this trend is to change our own wording. Instead of calling it bullying, which suggests childhood playground antics, we need to start calling it what it really is: harassment. After all, if an adult went to the workplace and was being threatened, physically assaulted, publically humiliated in front of co-workers, or aggressively targeted in any other way, the "bully" would be charged with harassment, and the victim would be protected. Shouldn't children get the same protections?

Early Intervention is Key
While I applaud the efforts many middle schools and high schools are doing to curb bullying (teenage harassment), we need to reach kids sooner. How soon? Pre-school.
Chances are that the kids who are harassing others in middle and high school are the same kids who were harassing others in pre-school. And if you think pre-schoolers and toddlers don't harass others, think again.
When my daughter was almost three, I took her to pre-school. Her first week, I stayed for the first thirty minutes to help her adjust to her new surroundings. I sat on the nearby bench to watch how well she acclimatized. On day four, as my daughter was playing ball with another little girl, a young boy, roughly the same age as her, abruptly and aggressively snatched the ball from my daughter.
Now let's be clear: this was not an innocent case of one toddler wanting what the other one had and not knowing acceptable manners. This was a rude, aggressive, hostile little boy who was getting what he wanted no matter what and no matter who he hurt in the process. In this case, my daughter was the target.
Just as I was about to jump up and intervene, I witnessed something amazing: my daughter stood up for herself. She stood up to the rude little boy and said, "My name is Ava. I'm nice," and then she took her ball back. The boy, realizing he wasn't dealing with a "weak" little girl, walked away, growling.
So yes, harassment occurs even as young as age two, which is why we need to start the conversation with children about bullying during the pre-school and toddler years. If we arm youngsters with the self-confidence to stand up for themselves at a very young age, we'll not only help future victims protect themselves, but the conversation and teaching will also deter many youngsters from engaging in harassing behaviors in the first place. After all, confident children are not the aggressors; it's the insecure youth who seek dominance and approval who harass. And once a youngster starts harassing others, it only gets worse as the child gets older.

Long-Term Consequences
Just because a teen "toughs it out" through school and doesn't succumb to suicide doesn't mean the effects of the harassment stop after graduation. Studies show that bullying can lead to huge problems later in life. People who were bullied as teens have a higher risk of depression and anxiety in adulthood. In one study, adults who recalled being bullied in youth were three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or inclinations.
Lady Gaga admits that being bullied impacted her life, even years after the events. She recalled one incident where a group of boys threw her in a trash can in the street and laughed at her. She was too embarrassed to tell her friends or parents about incident. "It didn't sink in with me how bullying affected me until later in my life. I knew that it affected me deeply but it wasn't until a little bit later that I realized how much it affected me and how much it was still very present," she said.
Victims of any type of harassment never forget the attacks, the humiliation, the embarrassment, and the fear the aggressor inflicted upon them. And this is precisely why there should be severe consequences for any type of youth harassment, including verbal assaults, physical attacks, online humiliation, threats, and even sexting. All these forms of harassment ruin the lives of many children and teens, and it's time for it to stop.

Stop the Aggressors and Outlaw Bullying
The bullying epidemic is getting worse, not better. There are simply too many suicides as a result of bullying. And those youth who don't perish--who hold it in and live in fear--are enduring miserable and lonely lives because of needless harassment. It's not right! All kids need a chance at a bright future without aggression, harassment, and bullying. It's time to start talking about this topic more often and with younger children. And it's time we make a drastic change to how we view bullying and bullies.