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Melinda Hutchings Headshot

Why Do Teens Bully?

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Bullying has become more than just a part of growing up - it has turned into a serious issue to the point where school is no longer a safe place for our children.

The suicides of six teenage boys in the U.S. in September linked to homophobic bullying has seen this topic thrust back into the spotlight, with Larry King, Tim McGraw, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and comedian Kathy Griffin all speaking out.

Can anyone of us imagine the pain and isolation these teens must have felt when they decided that suicide was their only option? The pain, the struggle and the loneliness, is hard to comprehend.

In Australia, according to Kids Helpline, Bullying is the fourth most common reason young people seek help from children's help services. This is an issue that is not going away in a hurry.

So what is it that drives one teen to bully another? When I interviewed teenagers for my book It Will Get Better; Finding Your Way Through Teen Issues, Tom admitted to being a bully at school. "I was bullied and then there was a period where I became a bully too," he said. "I'd sense weakness in someone else and intimidate them. I think this was driven by a need to be accepted, and have some sort of influence or control in my life."

Bullies are asserting their authority to gain popularity and in doing so, trying to make up for their own feelings of inadequacy. But at what point did it become cool to drive a fellow teen to breaking point where the only foreseeable way to escape such persistent torment is to take their own life?

Bullying these days is ever-present. It's no longer limited to the school yard, or the bus stop when students are on their way home from school. Bullies stalk your child's cell phone. They prey on your child's vulnerability by deliberately blocking them out of online chats and recruiting others to do the same. This is the online version of what used to be playground politics "go away, we don't want you to hang out with us". It even happens in your child's own bedroom, the one place they should feel safe. Online bullying via instant message, Facebook, Myspace and chat rooms mean that the shelter of home is also threatened.

According to a study carried out at Australian Catholic University's (ACU National) Canberra Campus, a quarter of school children experience cyberbullying and some victims don't report incidences to their teachers for fear of losing access to new technologies.

When Robert contracted golden staph disease at age 15, because of the bleeding and matting of his scalp and hair, he was forced to shave his head. "Because I looked different and had an obvious illness, people at school made fun of the scars on my scalp and teased me about dying. This made me feel hopeless and I found it hard to make friends and fit in. I became very depressed." Robert also attempted to take his own life by jumping off a high wall. He was paralyzed for several days and all he could think about was how much he wanted to live. He says "If you're being bullied talk to teachers and your parents until your voice is heard and someone takes action to help you."

But what about those who are too scared to speak out?

This is why the urgent need exists to provide a strong support network of counselors, teachers and mentors at school who are vigilant about stopping bullying in its tracks. The perception needs to change to one where bullying is so uncool that it is the bullies themselves who are closed out and unpopular. Harsh penalties for cyberbullying need to be enforced so that our children have a sense of security and know that if they are being bullied there is a protocol to follow that will keep them safe.

Meanwhile six families grieve the loss of their children whose lives were tragically cut short because they were publicly ridiculed and humiliated by their peers. This can not happen to someone else.