Don’t Overlook Bullying

By Guest Contributor

As we approach a month since the troubling and startling suicide of 16-year-old Olivia Scott of Bristol, Vt., the newspapers, media and other news outlets are noticeably absent of any content related to teen suicide, bullying or harassment. This is a common pattern after tragic events such as this occur. While I am in no way critiquing the news system — I understand the news reports on current events and controversies and does not provide much opportunity for reflection on past situations — I still believe that certain subjects should not simply make headlines and then be cast aside. When one considers the prevalence of stories about teen bullying and suicide — according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, teen suicide leads to nearly 4,500 deaths per year, about half attributed to bullying — it is evident that this is an issue that can no longer remain muted. It is not enough for us to feel for the families and friends of victims of bullying.

Last spring after a screening of the documentary “Bully,” I found myself profoundly moved by the issue of bullying in elementary, middle and high schools. As someone who has worked extensively with adolescents in mentoring programs and in academic settings, I have witnessed the complexities of adolescence and have found it necessary to try to understand the reasons behind, and consequences of, teen bullying. Through research and exposure I have discovered various national movements that have formed and by which people are spreading awareness about this tragic problem. Yet despite these campaigns, most of which have been started by mourning parents, teenagers are still taking their lives to stop the endless taunting and hurt. This has forced me to wonder where we are going wrong. Why are children, adolescents and young adults still being bullied to the extent that they feel their only relief comes from death?

I believe that the finger cannot be pointed at any one cause and should not be directed solely at the perpetrators — or at least the commonly understood perpetrator. For the perpetrator is not just the person or persons conducting the bullying, it is unstructured media use, absent parents or adult figures, uninterested or unobservant teachers, peer pressure, and hormones. Most significantly, it is a lack of understanding how one’s words and actions can have a strong impact on another.

Internet websites such as ask.fm, on which Olivia Scott had been bullied and taunted, or Facebook provide forums in which adolescents can interact with one another without any boundaries or worries of adult supervision. Adolescence is a time that we all experience; as (older) young adults we remember the uncertainty of friendships, romantic relationships, sexuality, self-identity, gender expectations and physical capabilities. The Internet has allowed youth to ponder these issues and questions in an anonymous manner, or in a manner that lets them present themselves how they wish to be viewed by others. It allows them to experiment with identity expression in a different way than they may in person. This can be very beneficial for many adolescents who are struggling through or simply trying to navigate these challenging, yet exciting, years. But it can have negative repercussions when Internet use is done in a way that harms others. Such a powerful tool can provide safety and support as well as act in profoundly negative ways.

So what can be done? College-aged students are the generation most recently removed from this difficult time. We were just there. We get it. We know how it feels to have friends call you fat, to not have someone to sit with at lunch, to be ridiculed for certain clothing choices. We have felt the pain of knowing each time we speak others may laugh at our speech impediments. We have experienced these things, and they have hurt. But we have made it through, and though many of us may continue to struggle with the effects of such bullying, we have found ways to cope and have found other outlets — solutions that do not result in death.

It is our responsibility as this older generation to not overlook teen bullying. More than any other generation, we can relate to the pain of it. Furthermore, we have extensive knowledge of social media and the Internet and have (hopefully) mastered appropriate usage. Now is the time for us to model that. Now is the time for us to intervene, to offer advice, to be a listening ear, a good friend.

My heart goes out to the victims of bullying and their friends and families. It also extends to those who participate in the bullying. Many times those who bully do so out of the same confusion and discomfort as those who are bullied. With an increased reliance upon, and usage of, the Internet, social media and other communication devices, today’s adolescents are at greater risk of sustained bullying that is outside the classroom walls, and no one — the bullied or the bully — escapes the added scrutiny and opportunities for bullying that the Internet provides.

We must act as a reassurance that no matter how hard it may be in the moment, it can get better — it will get better. Adolescent involvement in indiscriminate bullying — cyber or otherwise — can lead to tragedies like the death of Olivia Scott. Deaths of this nature can be avoided, and we must act together to make this happen.

ANNA STEVENS ’13.5 is from Shoreham, Vt.

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