Times Article on Bullying

How many more youth suicides must occur before we act?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010



By now, you know the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge to escape humiliation and embarrassment. Likely Molly Wei and Dharun Ravi, the two Rutgers students who broadcast over the internet a videotape of his sexual encounter without his consent, wish they hadn't. But it is too late.


Too late for their brains to evaluate kindness and decency. Too late to teach them how thoughtlessness turns into cruel action. Too late to convey how reality shows violate the concepts of privacy and empathy. Never mind that both perpetrators graduated from one of the top high schools in the nation; never mind that they were raised in wealthy suburban communities.


There is a virus growing in our culture. It is known as predatory behavior or bullying. Disseminated by reality shows, violent video games and misused social media, it does not differentiate among gated communities, white picket fences or public housing. All it cares about is finding a host to help it thrive.


The hosts are young, developing brains that don't mature until 23-25 years of age. Biological research says that the frontal cortex doesn't fully develop until a person's early 20s, biasing an adolescent's actions toward immediate over long-term gains. And yet, we allow our tweens, teens and young adults to be barraged with images of exclusion, humiliation and violence.


For many kids, social interaction consists of collecting posts such as "like" or "a fan" on their online pages. Tyler's site already has more than 25,000 "likes," but do they help Tyler? Do these posts prevent future bullying? Do social media help kids become strong enough to stand up and speak out when they see something wrong? Did any of Molly's or Dharun's friends tell them to stop when they heard what they were up to? Apparently not.


College students today have 40 percent less empathy than people their age did two to three decades ago, according to a new study from the University of Michigan. The analysis indicated that relative to their late-1970s counterparts, today's college students are less likely to make an effort to understand their friends' perspectives or to feel tenderness or concern for the less fortunate.


"Many people see the current group of college students -- sometimes called "Generation Me' -- as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history," observed Sara Konrath, one of the study's researchers. The study cited increased media exposure and more competitive social environments as possible reasons for the dip in empathy.


Whining about technology won't help us. We must accept that our kids have become desensitized. The debates over the evils of video games, violence and stupidity in television and movies, or whether kids are "sexting" are not productive. They only delay us from addressing the kinds of behavior that cost lives.


Accept that the horse is already out of the barn regarding technology and its ability to spread "entertainment" like wildfire. Parents, educators and kids need tools and strategies to defend themselves and others from predatory and discriminatory behavior. That means learning how to recognize it, address it and protect youth from it before they become suicidal or we read their names in a headline.


Accept that educators/school administrators cannot solve this problem alone. We as parents, adults in the community and business leaders are the ones who can do the most good. Bullying is real and on the rise.

So what number of child suicides will be the tipping point? How close to your family will bullying have to occur for it to become urgent enough that you give it your attention? How many tragic headlines will it take for us to work harder collectively to make school and college cultures safer?


Rutgers is not the only venue that needs to make school life safer for all students. Let's not forget the recent suicides of Asher Brown, Phoebe Price, Carl Walker Hoover, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh and all the other kids too numerous to list here. These tragic losses serve as teachable moments for parents, youth and educators. With our young charges, we need to:

  • watch reality shows, then dissect and discuss them;
  • discuss decency, privacy and invasion of privacy;
  • discuss social media: what's good about it and what's not;
  • examine desensitization and the kinds of media that numb us to kindness, civility and respect;
  • discuss why there is so much humiliation and exclusion shown on TV and the internet, often accompanied by a "laugh track";
  • consider the need for more tolerance museums like the one on campus at The College of New Jersey (and perhaps create one at Rutgers).


Tyler's parents said, "Our hope is that our family's personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity." Can we hear Tyler calling us to act?


Lynne Azarchi is executive director of Kidsbridge, which has created a tolerance museum (kidsbridgemuseum.org)/learning lab on campus at The College of New Jersey.

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