Last month, a 15-year-old Saskatchewan boy named Todd Loik killed himself a week after starting 10th grade. His was just the latest in a series of deaths that have been blamed on cyberbulling. His grieving mother wants criminal charges laid against his tormentors, as well as federal laws against bullying.
Politicians across the country have rushed into the breach. Nova Scotia and Manitoba recently passed anti-bullying laws. British Columbia has set up an anonymous snitch line. Justice Minister Peter MacKay has promised "holistic" federal legislation to tackle the problem. "The pain, the suffering reminds us that the bullying must stop," he said.
Many parents are applauding loudly. Several highly publicized tragedies have left the public with the impression that bullying, especially cyberbullying, is wreaking havoc with children. It's widely believed that bullying can lead to suicide, and that tough new laws and zero-tolerance policies can help deter the perpetrators.
In fact, none of these things are true. Although bullying is common – between one in four and one in three teenagers will be bullied at some point, by some estimates – it is rarely devastating. The vast majority of kids grow up unscathed. The teenage suicide rate hasn't budged in more than 30 years. And there's no scientific evidence that bullying causes teenagers to kill themselves. The roots of adolescent suicide are complex, but if there's one common denominator, it isn't bullying – it's mental illness.
Why, then, is bullying headline news? As Poynter Institute media critic Kelly McBride wrote recently, it taps into "a common narrative that children today are spinning out of control as a result of technology and popular culture." These stories are easy to sensationalize. They're catnip for readers – as well as for politicians across the spectrum, from law-and-order types to social progressives.
Cyberbullying is new, of course. And it can be awful. It allows the torment to continue day and night. In a 2011 survey cited by the reliable U.S. website stopbullying.gov, 16 per cent of high-school students said they had been cyberbullied in the previous year. But most bullying still happens the old-fashioned way, in person.
The social panic over bullying has created a growing industry of experts and consultants to fight it. But anti-bullying programs can do more harm than good. Seokjin Jeong, a criminologist at the University of Texas, analyzed data collected from across the United States to assess the effectiveness of different programs. To his shock, he found that they didn't work. In fact, they often made the problems worse, by showing bullies new techniques and better ways to cover their trails.
Among the fiercest critics of such campaigns is British child development expert Helene Guldberg. The term "bullying," she says, has become so expansive that it's become meaningless. (The new Manitoba law, which contains a reference to "hurt feelings," is a prime example.) She argues that learning to deal with conflict, aggression, embarrassment, negative relationships and rejection is a crucial part of growing up – and that increasingly interventionist adults are doing kids no favours. Instead, they're cultivating what she calls a "culture of victimhood." Probably the last thing a bullied kid needs to hear is that she's been scarred for life.
That's not to say that adults shouldn't intervene when they see kids behaving badly. But the anti-bullying industry has done a lot of harm by playing down the resilience of ordinary children while selling us a cruel, simplistic cartoon of adolescent suicide. New laws wouldn't have saved Todd Loik, let's not fool ourselves about that.