By Todd Patkin
FOXBORO, MA — Every few months, it seems, there’s another headline about the death of a child or teen as the result of bullying. That’s terrifying, and it’s also unacceptable. To some extent we expect to hear about economic woes, political strife, and natural disasters. We don’t expect to hear about the premature (and preventable) deaths of our young people. And we shouldn’t have to. According to Todd Patkin, it’s past time for America to realize that bullying is “the” problem of our day, and for parents and educators to lead the revolution on stopping this dangerous behavior.
If you’re skeptical, consider the following statistics from www.bullyingstatistics.org:
• Almost 30 percent of young people participate in bullying behaviors or are bullying victims.
• Every day, around 160,000 students do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied.
• Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their nonbullied peers to consider suicide.
Perhaps most concerning of all, a 2009 study indicated that every half hour, a child commits suicide because he or she has been bullied. And that trend is on the rise.
“To put it bluntly, what we’re doing to combat bullying clearly isn’t working,” says Patkin, author of the new book Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95, www.findinghappinessthebook.com). “Suicides are still happening, and that’s not even mentioning the thousands of kids whose lives are destroyed or diminished—but not ended—by bullying.”
Yes, bullying is a big problem.
Patkin knows from personal experience just how devastating bullying can be. Being the target of several tormenters filled his high school years with much anxiety, and the effects of being bullied lasted into his adulthood.
“My tormenters verbally abused me, and they would also push me around and knock my books or drinks out of my hands,” Patkin recalls. “They caused me to often dread coming to school or attending social functions. My confidence and self-esteem took a huge hit. And looking back, I believe that the negative self-image bullying cultivated lasted well into my adult years and contributed to the anxiety and depression from which I suffered.”
Patkin isn’t alone. In fact, research has shown that the fear, social anxiety, shame, low self-esteem, and anger that bullying causes can rear their heads throughout adulthood, often at crucial moments, causing individuals who were once bullied to stick with “easy,” “safe,” or “defensive” choices instead of those that might prove most beneficial. There are definitive links between childhood bullying and adult depression. Being bullied can also lead to anger management problems and aggression in adulthood.
“The importance of combating and preventing bullying should be obvious,” Patkin states. “By preventing a young person from being bullied, we may be freeing him or her from a lifetime of feeling inadequate and being haunted by horrible memories. We may even be saving a life.”
So, why isn’t the current approach working?
Yes, bullying has gotten a lot of media attention, and as a result, schools and communities are providing more and more resources for bullied kids. They’re encouraging victims to reach out for help, and they’re also instituting zero-tolerance policies aimed at the bullies themselves. But too many victims are still slipping through the cracks. Why? According to Patkin, we’re putting too much responsibility on the young people we’re trying to protect.
“Schools put out a lot of rhetoric on dealing with and preventing bullying, but the problem is still rampant,” he points out. “That’s because our current approach revolves around requiring kids to tell on each other—and it’s not as effective as we hoped. For several reasons, young people just aren’t reporting the bullies.”
First of all, kids who are being bullied often lack the self-esteem and confidence to stand up for themselves and let adults know what’s happening. They also worry that turning a tormentor in will make them new targets, or intensify the former level of bullying.
“I certainly didn’t ask teachers or my parents for any help when I was in high school because I was so ashamed of my weakness in dealing with my bullies,” Patkin admits. “Also, I was afraid that if my teachers or parents stepped in, their interference would just make my tormenters focus their efforts on me more. I’d be even more on the outside because I’d ratted out my peers.”
Patkin believes that many young people today feel just as powerless to speak up and “out” bullies—and he also points out that repercussions for them could be worse than those he might have faced due to cyberbullying. In other words, today’s bullies aren’t forced to stop once the school bell rings—their vicious and hurtful behavior can continue 24/7 thanks to social media sites, texting, and emails.
“How much longer are we going to let this problem go on?” Patkin asks. “Are we going to continue to allow more kids to become victims because, like I was, they’re too scared to speak up? Not on my watch!”
Here’s what our goal should be.
“We need to spark a culture-wide revolution to make bullying uncool—in fact, unacceptable!” Patkin insists. “There needs to be a palpable stigma attached to tormenting and belittling another person in this way.”
Patkin compares the bullying problem to drunk driving. Once upon a time, getting behind the wheel after a few alcoholic beverages was fairly common and casual, and was not seen as “that big of a deal”—just as, until recently, bullying was seen as “a part of kids growing up.”
Then an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) took up the cause and dramatically changed the way in which Americans viewed drunk driving. Through publicity campaigns and a grassroots movement, MADD caused the public to view driving while intoxicated as something that is reprehensible, irresponsible, dangerous, and even criminal. MADD’s efforts also helped to enact stronger penalties against drunk drivers.
“Similarly, bullies need to lose the ‘cool’ image that comes with being at the top of the social pecking order,” Patkin says. “The public—adults and kids alike—needs to view bullying as something that brands you with a modern-day scarlet letter. Our current zero-tolerance policies are a good start.”