Sorry, but it wasn’t bullying

Like everyone else I feel just terrible about what happened to Amanda Todd, the teenager from BC who committed suicide last week.

But, honestly, I don’t know where the media gets off boiling this down to a simple case of bullying. Obviously none of us yet have all the facts around this case. But, if what Amanda told us in her video was true the mistreatment she suffered went far beyond bullying.

She was assaulted. She was stalked. She was defamed. She was sexually exploited. These are crimes. To categorize them as bullying, a word that is often used these days to describe things like teasing and being mean, trivializes the seriousness of these offences.

There’s another big problem with the focus on “bullying.” It distracts us from the elephant in the room here, which is mental health. As I watched Amanda’s story unfold through the cards she displayed on her video my brain kept screaming “MENTAL HEALTH! MENTAL HEALTH! not bullying.  Why aren’t people talking about mental health? (Maybe some are, but I haven’t seen it yet.)

I submit that it’s because they’re too busy fixating on “bullying.” My concern is that, in the aftermath of this terrible case, people will call for more of the default bullying solutions – awareness raising, having assemblies with passionate speeches, making posters and plays about bullying, and promises of more anti-bullying programs that do things like teach children to “walk away” from bullying. I kid you not. This is one of the strategies espoused in a so-called anti-bullying program a teacher friend of mine is being trained in.

I understand why researchers and educators are trying to address bullying. It is a problem. But anti-bullying programs, which are largely ineffective anyway – Hands up. How many people think the bullying situation has gotten better since the these programs were introduced? – will never touch the mental health issues such as the ones the poor girl was clearly dealing with.

Mental health problems are not easy to fix. But acknowledging them as a key contributor to teen suicide would be a small step in the right direction.

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About uncommonjohn

I am one of Canada's top parenting writers. My areas of expertise and interest include debunking bad parenting advice (especially about sleep), self-regulation, fatherhood, child development, children's mental health, childbirth and breastfeeding.
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6 Responses to Sorry, but it wasn’t bullying

  1. Annamae Elliott says:

    You hit the nail on the head.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Thanks. I just wanted to add that since I posted last night I have been seeing acknowledgment of the mental health issue in Amanda’s case. I was particularly heartened to see that Debra Pepler, who is very influential, had been talking about mental health.

  2. Juliette says:

    Not disagreeing. Amanda Todd and the other children who have committed suicide have been failed on multiple levels, and I agree that this went beyond playground bullying.

    BUT I do want to address your comments about bullying and bullying programs. Programs in Canada are for the most part woefully inadequate, and therefore no, I don’t think much has changed. But in some countries, mainly in Europe, where there is a unified, national program to combat bullying, bullying rates have gone down significantly. It is possible to address the issues, although it goes far beyond a passionate assembly. Rates go down when the bystanders intervene. It’s the only thing that seems to work. But getting kids to change their behaviours takes time, and it needs to happen before bullying starts. The program works – there is data to prove it. The problem is that we’re so fragmented, even at the provincial level, that none of these programs ever go anywhere. And the same with children’s mental health. And so, nothing changes, and we fail our kids. I’m trying to be part of the solution, but there is so much pushback it’s very frustrating.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Juliette: Thanks for your comment. I am aware of the research that shows that bullying tends to stop when bystanders intervene. But those studies were naturalistic studies where kids were wired up so that their unsupervised playground behaviour could be observed. In other words it was bystander intervening that some kids had done spontaneously rather than something they were taught to do in a program. I’m completely unconvinced that teaching kids to intervene as part of an anti-bullying program is effective. I recall one study in which they tried this at a summer camp. And it was clear that the kids internalized the message that they could make a difference by intervening, but although all the kids said they witnessed bullying, very very few of them said they had actually intervened.

      I believe that this focus on bystanders is a problem. Yes, bullying does often stop when kids intervene. It’s been proven. But people became too focused on bystanders as the solution. And I think one of the effects is that is has allowed adults to ignore the role of supervision in bullying prevention. In fact I’ve often heard people say that bullying is not a supervision issue. Well, they are wrong. A recent international review of studies on the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs (which I can’t seem to lay my hands on at the moment) listed proper supervision a necessary component. It wasn’t the only one, and certainly I would never say that supervision can prevent all bullying, but without supervision you ain’t got much. I wish they’d take all the money they spend on awareness and education and put it toward putting more adult bodies in school yard and school hallways when kids aren’t in class.

      I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t think supervision is important, Juliette. I’ll bet you do think it’s important. But my point is, and has been for a long time, that anti-bullying efforts have bet too heavily on teaching kids to not bully and to stand up for each other. Of course, we should teach kids those things. But, for me, any anti-bullying program has to be rooted in adults’ responsibilities to protect and supervise kids is a non-starter.

      • Juliette says:

        I certainly won’t disagree with that either. I’m disgusted with the lack of supervision in our school – and older children supervising younger children, which is what is happening, is great in theory, but in practice, it just puts them in a wonderful position to wield their own power. I’m similarly disgusted with some of the responses I’ve seen to the Amanda Todd and similar stories – everyone washing their hands of responsibility for protecting children, from Facebook (in Amanda’s case) to schools doing nothing, bus drivers shrugging… and really why WOULD other children intervene if they don’t think adults are going to back them up? It makes no sense.

        The program I’ve learned about does use peer intervention as one key component of the practice, and from what I’ve read, it’s what has been implemented in Europe, and it (or something) is working. Perhaps it’s not the program itself but the “money-where-your-mouth-is” message that bullying is simply not tolerated. I don’t know. What I do know is plenty of countries in Europe have had a sharp decrease in bullying rates – something is doing that. Something Canada should be able to copy.

        As a society, we pay a lot of lip service to being inclusive, empathetic, and caring. But it takes just a few of these cases to show that it’s not being put into practice. I am scared for my daughter, to be honest; there is such a lack of support for kids.

  3. uncommonjohn says:

    Hi Juliette: I’d be interested in knowing more about the European program you are talking about.
    Do you know the name of it?

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