She was just 12 years old.When Rebecca Ann Sedwick left home early on a Monday morning, her mother assumed she was walking to the school bus as usual. Early the following morning, September 10, 2013, Rebecca’s body was found in an abandoned concrete business.
Rebecca, who lived in Lakeland, Florida, committed suicide after 18 months of continual bullying during which some girls callously suggested she kill herself. She took their hateful advice. Before she climbed a tower and jumped to her death, she changed her name on a social media messaging app to “That Dead Girl.” By the time anyone noticed, it was too late.
According to police, as many as 15 girls tormented Rebecca at school and online, imitating her, calling her names and even beating her up. After Rebecca’s suicide, two girls, ages 12 and 14, considered primarily responsible for the bullying, were charged as juveniles with third-degree felony aggravated stalking.
Desiree Jones was in elementary school in Copan, Oklahoma, when it first happened. Classmates made fun of her clothes and her teeth. Things escalated in high school as the “cool” kids frequently surrounded her locker, gossiped about her for still being a virgin, for being friends with other “uncool” people, for being a straight “A” student and for raising her hand in class to answer quiz questions. It didn’t matter that she was on the cheerleading squad; they decided she didn’t fit in. When she tried to ignore them and walk away, they pushed her books out of her arms, often making her late for class.
“My mom gave me good advice,” recalls Desiree, who was valedictorian of her high school graduating class. “She said, ‘Just be you. Lean on your family and your faith. And realize one day you’ll be their boss and they’ll be working for you.’”
Today, Desiree, a 2013 graduate of Oklahoma State University is working in a law office in Oklahoma City. She’s engaged to be married this fall and is busy making wedding plans, excited about the direction of her life.
Two different people. Two radically different endings. Both victims suffered from bullying, which is certainly nothing new, although our awareness of it has increased greatly in recent decades. Sadly, it appears our society may just be getting more accustomed to violence. Statistics show that by the time the average child finishes elementary school, he or she has watched 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 acts of violence. That should alarm all of us, especially parents.
What Exactly is Bullying?
Kids can be downright cruel to each other, but is being mean the same thing as bullying? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) anti-bullying website, stopbullying.gov, bullying is defined as “intentionally aggressive, usually repeated” verbal, social or physical behavior aimed at a specific person or group of people.
Bullying always involves aggression of some sort—whether or not physical contact is made. A teenage punk beating up a disabled homeless man certainly involves aggression, but it’s not necessarily bullying. In order for aggressive behavior to be labeled “bullying,” there must be some sort of pattern to the behavior and there must be a relationship between the bully and the victim, with an imbalance of power between the two. Ironically, although a bully may commit a criminal action (think robbery, assault, harassment), “bullying” alone is not considered illegal.
Physically dominating and/or injuring another person
Hitting, punching, kicking, pushing, tripping, spitting
Taking and/or damaging/destroying someone’s possessions
Making rude, threatening, offensive gestures
(written or spoken)
Teasing, taunting, mocking
Inappropriate sexual comments
Threatening to harm
Spreading malicious gossip or rumors about someone
Intentionally ignoring or excluding someone
Intentionally embarrassing someone in public or online
Telling others not to be friends with or hang out with someone
Damaging someone’s reputation
Technology is both a blessing and a curse. Bullies, especially adolescents and teens, often turn to cell phones and the Internet to take their harassment to another level. In addition to causing harm to the victim, cyber bullying can land the bully—and his or her parents—in hot water legally. If the bully is a minor, the parents can face legal charges. People who “sext” (sending sexually explicit images by text) or cyber bully someone in a sexual way can end up being forced to register as a sex offender.
Cyber bullying includes any of the following:
Sending mean messages or threats to a person’s email account or cell phone
Spreading rumors online or through texts
Posting hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites or web pages
Stealing a person’s account information to break into their account and send damaging messages
Pretending to be someone else online to hurt another person
Taking unflattering pictures of a person and spreading them through cell phones or the Internet
Sexting, or circulating sexually suggestive pictures or messages about a person
If you have children or teens in the house, allow Internet access only in a family-shared area. Maintain access to your children’s email accounts and phone messages for their own safety. Explain to them in black-and-white terms how serious cyber bullying is and that it’s no joking matter. Let them know the consequences can haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Experts believe the greatest incidences of bullying occur in middle school. A UCLA psychology study of 1,895 students at 11 middle schools in Los Angeles revealed that kids who bully others were described as “cool.” The study found that bullying helps improve the bully’s social standing and popularity. Here’s a look at bullying in the United States:
Every 7 minutes a child is bullied on the playground.
Approximately 30 percent of young people admit to bullying others.
83 percent of girls and 79 percent of boys report being bullied either in school or online.
27.4 percent report someone stealing their belongings.
23.7 percent report sexual comments and gestures.
70.6 percent of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.
62 percent witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month.
20 percent of high school students say they have seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months.
25 percent of students say that teachers intervened in bullying incidents, while 71 percent of teachers say they intervened.
75 percent of school shootings have been linked to harassment and bullying against the shooter.
87 percent of students say school shootings are motivated by desire to get back at those who hurt them.
30 percent of students who reported they’d been bullied said they had at times brought weapons to school.
Bullying was a factor in two-thirds of the 37 school shootings reviewed by the U.S. Secret Service.
Is Your Child Being Bullied?
It’s a parent’s nightmare: to discover their child is the victim of a bully. But how can you be sure it’s actually happening? For starters, it helps to know if your child fits the risk factors of being a victim.
Having any of the following factorsdoesn’t necessarily mean your child will be bullied; it just means he or she may be more likely to be a victim of bullying.
Less popular than others, doesn’t “fit in”
Has few friends
Special needs student
Perceived as different from their peers (new to school, underweight, overweight, wearing different clothing than “cool” kids, etc.)
Perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
Has low self-esteem
Tries to annoy, provoke or antagonize others in order to get attention
The following can be signs your child is actually being bullied:
Unexplained bruises or injuries of any type (especially if the reason given seems hard to believe)
Missing or destroyed clothing or personal items
Frequent headaches and/or stomach aches
Makes excuses to avoid school or social situations
Skipping meals or avoiding family times
Changes in eating habits or extreme hunger after school (a bully may be taking their lunch)
Angry, sad, depressed, withdrawn
Shows signs of self-loathing, helplessness
Complaining of nightmares, difficulty sleeping
Loss of interest in school or extracurricular activities
Sudden loss of friends
Exhibiting destructive behavior
Hurting themselves in any way
Talk of suicide
Being observant and maintaining good communication with your child is the best way to find out if he or she is being bullied. Only 20 to 30 percent of student victims tell an adult or teacher about the incident, so don’t expect your child to speak up or ask for help. He or she might want to try and handle the situation on their own or be afraid that involving an adult (even a parent) will lead to retaliation and more abuse from the bully.
If you discover your child is a victim of bullying, contact the school (if the incidents are happening there or on the school bus). Start here rather than confronting the bully or their parents first. Many schools have “no bullying” laws, and this will work in your favor.
Is Your Child A Bully?
Although no parent wants their child to be the victim of bullying, it’s another story altogether to discover your child is the perpetrator. It can be tough for parents to admit their own child is tormenting another child.
If aggression and dominance are modeled in the home, youth will often carry these behaviors into their interactions with peers. It’s been shown that when conflict and violence are present in the home, this serves as a “training ground” for aggression and bullying behavior. A child may also exhibit bullying tactics when one or both parents have decreased involvement in their child’s life.
If any of the following descriptions fit your child, pay attention, as this makes them more likely to bully others:
Displays aggression easily
Demonstrates need to control or dominate others
Has difficulty following rules
Has positive view of violence
Tendency to break rules, push limits
Lack of empathy and sympathy to someone in physical and/or emotional pain
Often tries to manipulate situations to his or her advantage
Associates with friends known to bully others
The following can be signs your child is actually being a bully:
Sudden change of friends and kids they hang out with
Constant worry about being popular or in with the “right crowd”
Getting into frequent fights
Being disruptive in class and/or sent to the school office frequently
Increased aggression without obvious reason
Over-reaction to real or perceived slights
Blaming other kids for their problems (“It wasn’t my fault!”)
Showing up with things with no good explanation for how they got them (They may be taking things as “payment” from the victim.)
If you notice any of these signs, it’s time for a serious talk with your child. Denial is a common reaction, and many parents instinctively defend their child. Realize that you may need to involve professional counseling or therapy to work through underlying emotional issues.
Understand that if your child is a bully, he or she is also considered “at risk” for many of the same problems the victim faces. Studies have shown that bullying perpetrators also experience negative consequences, including anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, delinquent behavior, poor academic achievement and adult diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. These children can also end up in trouble with the law if their bullying behavior escalates or includes drug and alcohol abuse or illegal activities, such as property damage or robbery.
It’s important not to trivialize bullying or think of it as a normal part of growing up. What you don’t want to do is ignore the issue and hope it goes away. A bully is six times more likely to be incarcerated by the age of 24 and five times more likely to have a serious criminal record when he grows up. Approximately 40 percent of boys who were identified as bullies in middle and high school had been arrested three or more times by the age of 30.
Studies have shown that peers (two to four people, on average) are present in most cases of bullying. Unfortunately, the presence of bystanders tends to encourage—not discourage—the perpetrator. In some cases, the bystanders actually joined in on the bullying behavior, but in the majority of cases, they just watched passively. It’s a sad statement on society that in only 25 percent of cases did bystanders act to intervene on behalf of the victim. Other studies have shown that no intervention occurs in 85 percent of cases.
So what should you do if you witness someone being bullied? If the witness is also a child, he or she should get an adult to help. An adult witnessing such activity should intervene immediately. It’s been proven that when an adult steps in to intervene in a bullying incident, the behavior stops within 10 seconds in over half the cases. Call 911 immediately if the bully is making threats of serious harm.
Are You Being Bullied?
If you’re the victim of bullying or know someone who is and want to help, call the stopbullying.gov LIFELINE at (800) 273-TALK (8255).
Sources: apa.org, americanspcc.org, stopbullyingnowfoundation.org, stopbullying.gov