Every day I think why am I still here? … I have nobody. I need someone.
– Amanda Todd, 15, suicide victim
Amanda Todd's story makes your blood boil and your heart break. At 12, she was lured by a cyberstalker to flash her body on the Internet. The stalker made sure the image followed her for years. Other kids tormented her and called her "porn star." She killed herself last week. Her legacy is her YouTube video, a desperate plea to make it stop.
Cue the politicians, who are predictably outraged. Something must be done. The NDP wants Parliament to show "leadership" by passing an anti-bullying motion. (Anyone opposed? I thought not.) B.C. Premier Christy Clark has courageously come out against bullying, too, declaring that all suicides can be prevented if we just try harder. British Columbia has pledged $2-million for new anti-bullying initiatives, and even has an Anti-Bullying Day. Ontario has enacted new legislation against cyberbullying, and requires school boards to offer counselling, anger management courses etc.
Everybody, from Harvard University to the MacArthur Foundation and Lady Gaga, is on the anti-bullying bandwagon. It's the social cause du jour. So forgive me for sounding skeptical about the latest plans to eradicate this scourge. The anti-bullying crusade has been around for years. Yet, kids still torment kids as much as ever – even more than ever, now that they can do it around the clock in cyberspace.
These days, it's fashionable to blame bullying for adolescent suicides. But mental illness can also be a factor. As York University bullying expert Debra Pepler points out in an interview, mental illness makes kids more susceptible to bullying and also more likely to bully others. Would extra anti-bullying measures have saved Amanda? I don't think so. She was surrounded by caring adults, and attended a special school, where she had strong relationships with staff and other kids. But she was an extremely fragile girl. She'd tried to kill herself by drinking bleach, and had been hospitalized for psychiatric care. Before she died, she seemed to be getting better. She got all the help the system could provide. But it wasn't enough.
There's no sure way to bully-proof our kids. But the best protection isn't legislation or a bunch of new programs. It's the constant, close involvement of responsible adults – parents, teachers, coaches, bus drivers, aunts, uncles, neighbours – who're aware of their role in modelling good conduct, empathy and emotional regulation. It's showing kids how they're supposed to treat other people every moment of the day, not just on Anti-Bullying Day. Character education is useless work if it's just an extra class in school. It has to be embedded in every element of life. We used to know this. But somehow we forgot.
Today, a lot of kids are cut off from adults. They spend hours in their rooms, with their screens, at earlier and earlier ages. Not a good idea, because the best bullying prevention program is active adult attention. A fascinating study done by Unicef found that the more involved the parents are, the happier the kids. It asked adolescents in several countries two questions about parental involvement. "In general, how often do your parents eat the main meal with you around a table? In general, how often do your parents spend time just talking to you?" Canada didn't rate particularly high on parental involvement. And when asked if their parents spent time "just talking to them" several times a week, less than half of the 15-year-olds said yes.
"It takes a lot of socialization to grow up civil and civilized," Ms. Pepler says. "We've left them too alone."
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