Friday, October 28, 2011

Is Bullying an Epidemic?

It’s an article of therapeutic faith. As a culture we believe that once we have identified a social problem we need to fill the media with stories about it.

In order to draw attention and resources to the problem, reporters and pundits start calling it an epidemic.

Everyone is horrified by the epidemic. It is destroying the lives of our children and our parents and ourselves.

And everyone takes the opportunity to show off his moral righteousness by declaring that he refuses to tolerate the epidemic. By making people more aware, he is striking a blow for  goodness.

For reasons that no one can quite explain, we believe that increased awareness and enhanced consciousness of a problem is the first step to solving it.

It feels like a vestige of what feminists used to call consciousness raising: a circumstance where women would become aware of how terrible their marriages were and how oppressed they were by the patriarchy.

Feminists rationalized consciousness raising by saying that these marriages were bad before women became aware of how bad they were, and that women were miserable before knowing that the fault lay in patriarchal oppression. If women were not unhappy in their marriages, they were induced to get with the program.

The result of all this consciousness raising was to send more than a few perfectly good marriages into divorce court. Invariably, this worked to the detriment of women and children. We expect nothing else from feminism.

Now, Larry Magid addresses the same issue in the context of the new so-called epidemic of bullying. Links here and here.

He reports on important research that shows that the more we talk about bullying and the more we become hysterical about the epidemic of bullying, the more we encourage children to become bullies.

The more we talk about it, even as we denounce it, the more it starts feeling like a social norm.

Peer group pressure being what it is, adolescents will hear about the epidemic and think that if they are not bullying someone they are not just like everyone else. As we know, adolescents want, above all else, to be like the other kids.
Of course, one wonders whether the same applies to the “epidemics” of sexting and of eating disorders.

Neither Magid nor I wish to minimize the negative effects of bullying. We are both saying that when you whip the public into a frenzy, you are not making the problem better. You are making it worse.

This is consistent with symptom selection theory, explained by Ethan Watters in his book, Crazy Like Us. If the press indulges an orgy of reporting about anorexia, as it did a while ago in Hong Kong, it will produce a rash of cases in a place where none existed before.

Of course, some people have a vested interest in getting the public lathered up. For them, more bullying means more business.

To render their panic credible, they tend to declare every childish taunt and insulting behavior to be bullying.

In Magid’s words: “Manifestations of cyberbullying include name calling, sending embarrassing pictures, sharing personal information or secrets without permission, and spreading rumors. It can also include trickery, exclusion, and impersonation.

“When talking about bullying and cyberbullying, it’s important to remember that not every incident is equally harmful.  There are horrendous cases where children are terribly hurt but there are many cases where kids are able to handle it themselves. That’s not to say it’s ever right — there is never an excuse for being mean — but parents and authorities need to avoid jumping to immediate conclusions until they understand the severity of an incident. And, of course, different children will react differently to incidents depending on a number of factors including their own physiological makeup, vulnerability and resiliency.”

More bullying means more sensitivity training and more bureaucrats to deal with the problem.

Children will be told, indirectly, that bullying is normal and that they are incapable of defending themselves. Not only do they need parental defenders, but they will need an army of educrats performing group therapy in high schools.

As always, the faux therapists will take the occasion to shower these children with empathy, the better to help them to get in touch with their kinder, gentler, more sensitive sides.

Bullying exists. In the best of all possible worlds the child who is being bullied learns to fight back.

Here’s the best known example, from Australia:

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