April 10, 2009-- Two years ago, at the age of 17, Eric Mohat committed suicide. On March 27 of this year, his parents filed a federal lawsuit against their son’s high school in Mentor, Ohio. They are not seeking monetary compensation. They merely want the school to recognize that the bullying their son endured was a major factor in his suicide, and that the school did not do enough to protect him.
The Mohats also want the school to put in place a comprehensive anti-bullying program. They claim that bullying was a major contributing factor in the suicides of three other students in Eric’s class that same year. The Mentor Public School District, however, denies it has a problem, and points out that it already has an anti-bullying program.
How serious is bullying? Some look on it as just a rite of passage for the brainy to endure the abuse of the brawny. It toughens you up, preparing you to deal with the hard knocks of adult life. According to the Mohats, officials at their son’s school brushed away concerns about bullying, taking the attitude that “boys are just being boys.” But is bullying really just a normal part of growing up?
Bullying is certainly normal in the sense that it is widespread. According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center (NYVPRC), nearly 30 percent of American students in grades six through ten either bully or are bullied, or both. The effects of bullying, however, belie the relaxed attitude some take toward the issue. Being bullied can lead to depression, anxiety, and insecurity. Children who are bullied also grow into adults who are more likely to be depressed and suffer from low self-esteem than adults who were never bullied. On the other hand, being a bully is no harbinger of future success and happiness either. Boys who bully, at least, are far more likely to end up in jail when they reach adulthood, with one study finding that 60 percent of male bullies in grades six through nine ended up convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24.
Nearly 30 percent of American students in grades six through ten either bully or are bullied, or both.
Can being bullied lead to suicide? The Mohats are hardly the only ones who think it can. The family of a young girl in upstate New York thinks bullying was a significant factor in her recent suicide, too. It certainly seems plausible, though the scientific evidence is far from conclusive yet. In a review last year of studies from 13 countries , Yale School of Medicine researchers did find evidence that victims of bullying were from two to nine times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Lead author Dr. Young-Shin Kim is currently investigating whether or not there is a causal link between being bullied and actual suicide.
I myself was bullied as a child, especially in grade seven. Though I never had suicidal thoughts, being picked on and pushed around was far from a pleasant experience. I figured I was being targeted because I was intelligent—an envious attack on the good for being good. I also think, however, that it had a lot to do with the fact that I was not physically courageous or particularly strong, and was therefore unlikely to fight back effectively. A friend of mine who was also smart but more athletic suffered no comparable indignities.
Fortunately for me, my torment more or less ended with the school year, but not because anyone made any concerted effort to address the problem. It just so happened that the two worst bullies in my class were held back due to poor grades—no doubt going on to terrorize some other hapless souls. My deepest impressions while the bullying lasted were of the injustice of it all, and of the seeming impotence or indifference of teachers and other adults. The world seems profoundly unfair to a kid who’s being picked on when authority figures leave him to fend for himself, ill-equipped as he may be.
We are arguably more aware of the seriousness of bullying than we were a quarter century ago when I was being pushed around. But in addition to the fact that some people still see bullying as a normal part of the rough and tumble journey to adulthood, there is also a more subtle sense in which we tolerate bullying.
The NYVPRC, cited above, is typical in looking to dysfunctional home environments for an explanation of bullying: “Children and teens that come from homes where parents provide little emotional support for their children, fail to monitor their activities, or have little involvement in their lives, are at greater risk for engaging in bullying behavior.” Overly permissive or overly harsh parental discipline is also a contributing factor.
What is wrong with looking for environmental explanations for antisocial behavior? Nothing, as long as those explanations are kept in perspective and not used to excuse that behavior. Statistical correlations may reveal a tendency for bullies to come from dysfunctional homes, but correlation is not destiny. Not all neglected or harshly punished children become bullies, after all, and not all bullies are neglected or harshly punished.
Unusually aggressive 16- to 18-year-old boys not only failed to empathize when seeing images of people inflicting pain on others, but they actually enjoyed the experience.
In addition to the pitfalls of environmental determinism, biological determinism is also increasingly in vogue these days. A recent University of Chicago study using functional MRI brain scans found that unusually aggressive 16- to 18-year-old boys not only failed to empathize when seeing images of people inflicting pain on others, but they actually enjoyed the experience , unlike a control group of average adolescent boys.
This is interesting stuff, and it may be helpful in designing more effective anti-bullying programs in the future. The danger, though, is that cries of “It’s not their fault—their environment made them do it!” will be supplanted by cries of “It’s not their fault—their brains made them do it!”
Neural imaging studies, however informative, do not tell us why some people enjoy bullying. Were they born that way? Did parental neglect or abuse make them that way? Was it some combination of the two? Could it be that in addition to these factors, the bullies themselves made some bad choices along the way? The science shows only tendencies, leaving ample room for individual choice.
Nowhere in my reading on this topic, however, did I find a single word suggesting that bullies should take responsibility for their actions. Neither the NYVPRC nor the popular Olweus anti-bullying program’s website seem to broach the subject. I can only assume that there is some talk of personal responsibility buried in the details, but it is definitely not front and center. What is front and center is the plethora of possible environmental and biological determinants that can so easily be used to explain away any notion of responsibility.
If a typically post-modern response to anti-social behavior is to resort to environmental or genetic determinism to excuse aggressors, a typically traditional, religious response is to be too quick to condemn aggressors as evil. But there is a risk of slipping into deterministic thinking here too: If someone is evil, is he or she not bound to do evil things?
A more useful position is to condemn the act but emphasize the free will of the actor. Despite one’s previous experiences and genetic predispositions, at any given moment, one has a choice about how to act. One can either continue on a well-worn path without giving it much thought, dimming the light of consciousness; or one can choose to shine a brighter light, examining one’s motivations and acknowledging that one has options.
Free will is not omnipotent, of course. Continually reaffirming the same choices does form a person’s character, making it increasingly difficult to change course. This is why it is so important to reach young minds before they are fully set in their ways and get them to understand how bullying is not in their long-term interests.
A traditional, religious ethic focused on altruism and self-denial—in which selfish desires are condemned as leading inevitably to evil outcomes—stands only a moderate chance of restraining even an empathetic person. The problem is that self-denial fights equally against both destructive and life-affirming impulses, leading to confused and contradictory signals. With an un-empathetic person, an ethic of self-denial has no chance whatsoever of succeeding.
Abandoning absolute ethical principle is hardly the answer either, though. What is required is an ethic of rational self-interest. Of course, if methods can be found to increase empathy in those who enjoy bullying, all the better. But an ethic of rational self-interest at least sends a clear signal: you can pursue your own needs and desires as long as you do not trample on the rights of others. With a rational focus that takes the long-term consequences of actions into account, bullies can be made to understand that bullying will not really help them get along in the world. It can also help them aspire to be something better in life than a two-bit thug. Combined with a civilized social order that emphasizes free will and holds people accountable for wrongdoing instead of absolving them of blame, this approach would have a good chance of restraining even an un-empathetic person.
The Olweus anti-bullying program, which the Mentor Public School District still uses, demonstrated only mixed results in a recent controlled trial. Furthermore, the program is designed for elementary and middle schools, not high schools. A program that emphasizes free will, personal responsibility, accountability, and rational self-interest has the best chance of getting a handle on the bullying problem. For kids being bullied, it would send the message that the world does not have to be so profoundly unjust after all.