Have we created a culture of bullies?

10/04/2017 12:43 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2017

Eight-year-old Gabriel Taye hanged himself with a necktie earlier this year.

A few days before this little boy took his own life, school video footage shows a classmate hurling Gabriel into the bathroom wall where the third grader was knocked unconscious. He laid on the floor for more than five minutes while multiple students walked by – some even poked his body.

Gabriel is one of the 3.2 million students who are victims of bullying every year. That’s 3.2 million students who are more likely to drop out before graduating high school; 3.2 million students who are more susceptible to depression and suicidal thoughts; and 3.2 million students who are at risk of turning into bullies themselves. And the problem is growing.

The question we agonize with is why? Why does this happen? What could possibly drive one human being to torment another to the point that the person being bullied concludes that ending their life is more tolerable than living with the pain, shame, and fear?

Mallory Grossman, a sixth grader, was also bullied this year. She committed suicide in June after her schoolmates cyberbullied her for months. “[Mallory’s] life tragically ended when her own classmates used this cellphone to drive her into this tragedy. For months there were texts, Snapchat and Instagram — she was told she was a loser, she had no friends. She was even told, ‘why don't you kill yourself.’” Sadly, she did.

What happened to Mallory is happening to more and more of our kids. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, seventy-six percent of American teens use Instagram and 25 percent said they have experienced repeated cyberbullying on their cell phones or the internet. While bullying is nothing new, the pathological behavior behind bullying has found another terrible outlet through technology and social media, as cyberbullying (and trolling) has made matters exponentially worse.

October is Bullying Awareness Month. For most kids, they’re still just trying to adjust back into the school routine after summer vacation, but for some, school is not a safe place of learning but rather one of fear, isolation, and intimidation. Bullying isn’t just kids “rough housing,” “teasing,” or “just being kids.” Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. It can be physical, verbal, or relational. What’s most destructive is bullying’s relentless repetition. Victims of bullying often live in nonstop anxiety, wondering when the next attack will come.

And bullying has lasting repercussions:

  • Persistent bullying can increase youth’s risk of depression, and in rare cases, suicide.
  • 160,000 students skip school every day for fear of being bullied. A study found that schools with high levels of teasing and bullying had a dropout race 29 percent above average.
  • Bullied children are at an increased risk for substance abuse, academic problems, and violent behavior later in life.
  • Despite being online, cyber bullying has similar effects as in-person bullying—affected youth are more likely to skip school, receive lower grades, and have lower self-esteem.
  • Children who are perceived as “different” are most at risk for bullying—that includes children with autism, disabilities, or other special health challenges. Check out the most at-risk groups. Often, this means children who are already struggling and longing to fit in have yet another struggle to face: bullying.

We can read these statistics and maybe help a little by raising awareness of the root causes of bullying and its devastating impact on our society. However, lamenting the bullying epidemic isn’t going to help much. It is time that we – as a society – take a hard look in the mirror and take responsibility that our children’s bullying behavior is a reflection of us. We are part of the problem, and ultimately the hope for a solution.

The bullying epidemic is one of the consequences of the growing intolerance and unkindness in our society, our unwillingness to accept people with opinions and lifestyles that differ from our own. The increase in bullying is a direct result of the divisive, stressful environment we live in today. Ever-present technology, infotainment and 24/7 news, celebrity and political mudslinging, and the absence of public accountability and decency have desensitized us to the pain others feel and helped legitimatize prejudice and rude behavior.

How can we expect our children to be tolerant of each other, kind and respectful even, when what streams into their senses daily conveys the exact opposite? Often it’s elected officials, celebrities, and those of influence and power – leaders who should be setting the example – who are the most at fault, the most likely to make polarizing statements to play to their fan base.

Adults bully each other. This only fuels the acceptance of bullying in our culture, in all of its malicious forms – that somehow bullying is okay as long as it aligns with our own belief system or the other person somehow “deserved it.”

Perhaps the first step in mitigating bullying and protecting our children is for all of us to raise our self-awareness of our biases and belief systems – to check our own attitudes and behavior. Rather than wringing our hands over bullying, let’s role model what civility, kindness, patience, and respect look like. It must start with us – with you and me.

We also need to learn more about bullying and what we can do to help prevent and address it. For example:

  • Take action by hosting an anti-bullying event at your child’s school with Rachel’s Challenge, one of our charity partners.
  • Be more aware of the signs of bullying and make sure you know what you can do to help.
  • Teach your kids how to handle bullies and what to do if they see others being bullied.
  • Make sure your kids know how to block bullies on social media. Instagram, which has the highest incidence of cyberbullying, recently unveiled new tools to fight it, such as artificial intelligence and group blocking.
  • Help your kids get involved in activities they love where they can find acceptance and belonging, and make sure they have trusted friends and adults (like you) to share with.

For more, check out Community Health Charities’ End Bullying cause and bullying resources, plus Mental Health and Wellbeing resources. Knowledge is power. Together, we can – and we must – work to reduce the impact bullying has on millions of children. It begins with us all being kinder and more respectful to each other. Our kids are watching.

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