Jewish World Review
Oct. 21, 2010
/ 13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5771
Media help to hype perception of bullying
Reading all these reports of bullying makes me think of sharks and child abductions.
Remember the "Summer of the Shark"? Those words graced the cover of Time magazine in September 2001. The report was inspired by a spate of shark attacks that summer — the most notable victim being 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast.
Swimming off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., that July, Arbogast was attacked by a bull shark, which ripped off his right arm (it was later reattached). Several other high-profile attacks soon followed, and for weeks — until the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — the national media fixated on them. Every day seemed to bring reports of another attack.
But when the data was analyzed at the end of the year, it turned out that attacks in 2001 (72 worldwide) had actually fallen from the previous year (85). They fell again in 2002 (to 60).
Same with child abductions, ever since JonBenet Ramsey was murdered in 1996. Nancy Grace has never met a child abduction story she doesn't like, and the coverage of those rare instances has created a nation of registrations, Amber Alerts, and "stranger danger."
In 2005, Richard Louv published a book called "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," in which he made a compelling case for getting children away from televisions and computers and back to unstructured outdoor play in nature.
Unfortunately, part of the reason kids have drifted away from such activity is due to what Louv calls the "bogeyman syndrome." Conditioned by the media hype surrounding high-profile child abductions, Louv told me in an interview, parents have become so fearful that they no longer let kids go exploring.
"In truth," he said, "the number of child abductions has actually either been flat or on the decrease depending on which study you look at over the last 20 years."
Gever Tulley, author of a book called "Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)," echoed Louv's analysis. Statistically, Tulley told me, it would take 750,000 years for a child standing on a crowded street corner for eight hours a day to be abducted.
All of which makes me question whether bullying is the new form of shark attack or child abduction. It's a hideous problem that needs addressing, but one which might not exist in proportion to the news coverage it receives.
The suicides of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, and a group of four students from a single Cleveland-area school between 2006 and 2008 seem, in combination, to signify a larger bullying epidemic.
In Delaware last week, a 14-year-old boy shoved a 7-year-old into a portable toilet and tipped the structure over. How was it labeled by the media? Bullying. According to the News-Journal, police described the perpetrator as "the worst kind of bully." In turn, many of the headlines echoed that characterization. NBC10's web report: "Bully knocks over Port-O-John With Boy Inside: Cops." Fox29: "Teen 'Bully' Accused of Toilet Tipping."
It was gross. It was wrong. But was it bullying?
I shared my skepticism with Dr. Joseph Wright, senior vice president of the Children's National Medical Center in Washington and immediate past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' violence protection committee.
The difficulty in tracking the pervasiveness of bullying, Wright told me in an e-mail, is that researchers are dependent on self-reporting and observational studies with inherent flaws. He did note, however, that a comprehensive AAP review earlier this month found "no dramatic shifts in the overall epidemiologic prevalence of bullying in the United States" over the last decade.
"I would agree that perception of an increase in bullying behavior itself is likely a function of justifiable heightened attention resulting from high-profile cases and their consequences," Wright said. "Also, there is a 'Hawthorne effect' at play in this country in which heightened attention is leading to more reporting and tracking, especially in states where legislative mandates have been enacted. This is not necessarily a bad thing."
Indeed, none of this is to downplay or dismiss the potential ill-effects of bullying — for both the victims and the perpetrators. Or the legitimate dangers of shark attacks or child abductions.
But my hunch is that the underlying behavior hasn't gotten any more vicious. Nor has the prevalence of bullying itself increased. Rather, the attention paid to it has.
I went to school with plenty of bad kids who picked on classmates. Today, kids like that have cell phones and Facebook at their disposal. Meanwhile, an increase in absentee parents means the bullies encounter less discipline at home.
And yes, an overeager media has oversaturated many a news cycle with coverage of the latest bullying case with tragic consequences. The result is both a hyperawareness of behavior that has always existed, and an ever-expanding list of what is classified as "bullying."
No doubt that's due to the introduction of new technology that blurs the very definition. But I also suspect that rampant media coverage has created a run on so-called bullying stories.
It's a serious problem with potentially serious consequences — albeit one whose occurrence is in serious danger of being misrepresented.
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