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Bullying Prevention: Serious, Sensitive, but not Sensational

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Date posted: September 16, 2011

Tonight, CBS airs an episode of 48 Hours on bullying. I haven’t seen it yet, but it has stimulated a lot of discussion and some concern among many of the top researchers and practitioners in the fields of bullying and suicide prevention. Why? Because media so often gets it wrong.

By Eddie~S (Bully Free Zone  Uploaded by Doktory) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsBy its nature, commercial media goes for the sensational. If it bleeds, it leads. All too often in the past, media coverage of bullying has focused on those tragic cases that ended in suicide. That makes for a compelling story that will draw viewers or readers, but it doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the problem of bullying, or of suicide and it can lead to some unfortunate unintended consequences.

An overemphasis on bullying cases that end in suicide can make it seem that suicide is more common than it really is. Most kids figure out how to deal with bullying. It’s not easy, nor pleasant, but they, their friends, parents, and school officials manage to get through. For most kids, it gets better. For some, bullying can leave deep emotional scars, and I don’t mean to minimize their pain, only to say that most kids will not kill themselves but where are their stories? What can we learn from them about their responses, their resiliency, and their life afterward?

Focusing on suicides can make it appear that death is an acceptable, or the only, response to bullying and, thus, legitimize suicide in the troubled mind of a bullied adolescent. Instead of shedding light on an issue, overzealous coverage of suicide may actually encourage more.

In early November, many of the most knowledgeable experts on bullying will gather in New Orleans, at the International Bullying Prevention Association’s (IBPA) annual conference. That’s one of the best places to get a well-rounded understanding of bullying, its causes, and the most effective responses. [Disclaimer: Cable in the Classroom is a sponsor.] But you won’t find many reporters there, because effective bullying prevention and response programs are hard, complex work. It’s not glamorous, or sexy, or sensational. It’s not easy to describe in a sound bite.

I hope 48 Hours does a great job, and presents a balanced report on bullying. Having the only actual bullying researcher cut out of the program because his comments didn’t fit with the direction of the program raised some concerns among other experts. Correspondent Tracy Smith blogged about what she learned in covering the story, but you can’t tell from her words or from the video clips whether the show will be sensitive or sensational. CBS Radio and Larry Magid have posted interviews with prominent experts Justin Patchin and Patti Agatston, and there are some good resources on the 48 Hours website. So maybe, just maybe . . .

Stay tuned and, if you’re dealing with bullying in any capacity, take a look at the IBPA conference. You need to be there.

Photo by Eddie~S (Bully Free Zone Uploaded by Doktory) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons