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Bullying & Youth Suicide

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Bullying and Youth Suicide in the Modern Age


This document is the heart of The Joseph Project. A Resource for Parents, Teachers and Youth Workers the Joseph Project's goal is as follows:

  • To study and identify the sociological, technological and psychological factors that have given rise to cyber bullying
  • To help identify and help children who are at risk of injury from cyber bullying
  • To explore some of the societal problems that need to be recognized and addressed
  • THE JOSEPH PROJECT - Bullying and Youth Suicide In the Modern Age

When I was growing up there were bullies also. They were the tougher kids in town, maybe from a broken family situation, maybe they were abused at one point, or maybe they were the youngest of six boys who learned to be tough and yearned to have someone smaller than them to pick on. Sometimes they were physically bigger, stronger or tougher kids who otherwise lacked self-confidence and saw bullying as a way to assert their dominance. At its roots, bullying comes from a very simple need for children to feel power and control, which manifests itself in asserting control physically or mentally over someone else, thereby making the child feel than he or she has comparative control and/or power. Bullying is not restricted to children but children were traditionally more subject to it for several reasons:

1) Children have less developed self control than adults do. As we grow up, and presuming that we do so in an environment which is not severely counterproductive (ie - highly abusive home, abandoned and living in an orphanage, etc), we develop the ability to control both our actions and our words. While we still do break through our boundaries from time to time, we generally conduct ourselves in a more self-controlled manner than children, giving thought and pause before acting or speaking.

2) Lack of societal consequences such as concern about lawsuits, losing their jobs or being dragged into courts by ex-spouses.

3) Perceivedly smaller actual consequences. A simple schoolyard fight results in a bloody nose not a gunshot wound or a stabbing. Name calling results in someone's feelings getting hurt and some crying perhaps rather than a six year old feud.

Unfortunately, the bullying of old has given way to a new manifestation of pretty much the same old set of feelings, emotions and lack of self-restraint. However unlike the bullying of old, where black eyes and hurt feelings which a good visit to Dairy Queen could usually fix, the bullying of today is far more serious, insidious, irretrievable and yes, deadly. A few cases in point:

September 1998 Thirteen year old Jared High was assulted in a school gym by a known school bully. Already suffering from depression from persistent bullying at school, Jared became more severely depressed after being attacked and eventually took his own life. Read about Jared and his Mom's quest to help other teens who suffer from depression here.

October 2003 Ryan Halligan from Essex Juction, VT takes his own life over distress caused by online conversations. See the youtube video essay here featuring Ryan's father telling the story of what happened to Ryan. (video no longer available)

October 2006: In Dardenne, Missouri, thirteen year old Megan Taylor Meier hung herself after being repeatedly cyberbullied through Myspace.*

March 2009: In Springfield, Massachusetts Carl Walker-Hoover, an eleven year old boy who was repeatedly taunted for being gay, hangs himself with a belt.

March 2010: In South Hadley, Massachusetts, Phoebe Prince, a 15 year old school girl hung herself after being repeatedly taunted and verbally abused and harassed by students in school. Several students have been criminally charged in this pending case.

April 2010: 13 year old John Carmichael of Josuha, TX hung himself in the family barn after being repeatedly bullied for being 'little'

January 2010: In Colony, TX, nine year old Montana Lance hangs himself in the school bathroom. Children from the school said that he was continuously picked on.

April 2010: A Middle School Principal urges parents to "Get Children Off Facebook", citing not the dangers of online predation but instead the dangers of online bullying.

April 2010: HS Sophomore Ashley Rodgers from Kenersville, NC hangs herself after being harassed by text messaging from two classmates.

September 2010 - Nineteen year old Tyler Clementi, an accomplished violinist who happened to be gay is video taped by his room mate involved in a sexual encounter which was subsequently broadcast online. Tyler jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. Clementi's room mate and accomplice may be charged with invasion of privacy.

October 2010 - Asher Brown, a straight-A 13 year old student from Cypress, Texas shot himself in the head with his step fathers gun after coming out as gay. Asher was bullied relentlessly over his sexuality. Asher's mom insisted that she had tried for 18 months to get some intervention from the school board but to no avail.

September 2011 - Fourteen year old Jamey Rodemeyer takes his own life in spite of repeated calls for help on social networking sites on struggles with his sexuality.

This is a small list of several recent high profile stories. Yet, it hardly scratches the surface of what modern day bullying has become and the long term damage that it is doing to a generation of children. Not all children are thankfully going to hang themselves, but all children are at risk to the affects that modern day bullying may bring and if we do nothing more than 'outlaw' the offense in certain states, we will once again try to solve a problem by legislating a symptomatic action, rather than understanding a root cause and helping to address it.

So, lets begin again by reviewing the root source of bullying.


All people, need to feel competent, loved and validated. This happens in a myriad of ways far too lengthily to begin covering here. We all know that children need to be held when they are babies, we know that kids need to be commended and encouraged, just as much as they are reprimanded and corrected (and yes, they need that too). We all want someone to love us, want to feel good at what we do and want to feel like we have some value in the world. There are lots of healthy ways that we seek out these emotional needs and of course lots of ways that others seek them out in unhealthy ways (as in the case of the married individual who searches for love by having an affair with a series of lovers). Written into these basic needs are needs for control and needs for power. While men are associated with these needs more than women, both genders need them. They are just perceived in different ways to a degree. For example, a woman may find control in having a husband who is confident and successful, allowing her to feel the comfort to attend to needs such as the home and the family (sorry if this is a sexist example, but its just an example and many women are quite happy with this traditional arrangement). In a more contemporary example, many women find power by achieving high degrees and becoming just as successful as their male counterparts in the working world. Regardless of how we seek out power and control, we all need it to some degree and as outlined earlier, school children who seek power and control in unhealthy ways, often do so by seeking power and control over their peers by bullying.

In the seventies, we began sending a very clear message to children: Keep your hands to yourself. Children who used to duke out every problem after school in the sand pits, were bitterly threatened against doing this partially as a result of the peace rebellions taking place against war (in Vietnam to be specific). Charges of assault against a child were absolutely laughable in earlier decades, as it was assumed that children would beat each other up from time to time. As we continued to civilize children though and to hold a hard line against physical confrontation, we may have forced children in new directions with the same underlying emotions that generate bullying.

And then, in walked technology.

My first encounter with the use of technology as a tool for bullying was the all popular crank call. In the days where caller ID didn't exist and it took a subpoena and 20 minutes of "keeping him on the line" to trace a call, crank calling was a wonderfully entertaining activity for us middle school boys to have fun with a kid in the classroom who we didn't like or to find a way to just hear one of the little girls in our class giggle at the "is your refrigerator running" jokes that pervaded the crank calls of those days. Initially, crank calls were just funny, not mean, and while often directed towards some unwitting classmate who we might not have liked the best, it was rarely geared towards being hurtful.

The next crossroad where technology and bullying briefly met, was in media. Newspaper reporters for generations before had made a living breaking news stories which nobody else had. It was incumbent upon reporters to uphold the trust of the public by being honest and reporting information accurately and without bias, but it was also necessary for them to sometimes be aggressive like detectives, digging deeper into issues like government corruption until the real truth emerged for them to report. In the 1920s a reporter uncovered a botched investigation by the Wineville California police department, where the local police tried to show that they recovered a missing boy by presenting a runaway to his grieving mother. While the mother fought back her natural intuition which told her that the replacement child was not her real son, the Wineville police posed for newspaper photos lauding them for their fine work. Meanwhile, the real missing child was being held by a child killer who, unpursued by police, was massacring young children on an isolated ranch in the desert. It was the press who finally helped the mother uncover the real story, but this required aggressive persistence by a reporter who had to fight city hall for the real story. As media has evolved, the advent of aggressive reporters has become prolific. Each one is trying to outdo the one before him or her, pushing everyone from government officials to bank executive to even judges themselves to answer to their public.

Television evolved further however when reality TV began taking hold. Now it was suddenly a form of entertainment to confront or embarrass someone. From Temptation Island, where scantily clad women try to draw men away from their fiancees, to American Idol where brutally honest judges tell people to their face that their dreams of being a singer are a complete joke. There is so much reality television on the airwaves today that the lines between entertainment, news, reporting and documentaries has been blurred.

Also concurrent with the advent of reality television is of course the ubiquitousness of both the internet and digital imaging. Virtually every handheld communication device contains a camera. Our phones, our computers, our iPODS all have cameras and they all upload images to the internet. Additionally, social networking has made the posting and sharing of these images a part of every day life. Some may remember a day when you went to visit a friend and you were unexpectedly forced to sit and watch six carousels of slides from their family vacation to Florida or Hawaii. All of this has been replaced by a virtually instant uploading of what is happening that very second. I couldn't believe it in fact, when the news came that one of my cousins had just given birth again and 4 hours later I still hadn't been bombarded with photos.

If we look at the convergence of technology and of culture, on the ever present tendency that children will have to bully each other, you see a ripe opportunity for a new type of bullying to emerge which pits the instantaneous, prolific, creative and effective communications tool that is the internet against a culture that asks for aggressive pursuit of information and the reality that everyone's "profile" must be public. Couple that with the ability to be completely anonymous (at least in our perception) on the internet, and the opportunity for going overboard is far greater than if we were just in hand to hand combat on the school yard. Furthermore, the power of online bullying and the fragility of a child's reputation in the eyes of her peers, makes traditional bullying more powerful. Children may be bullied at school as before, but children realize now that it can become a mob mentality, instead of viewing it as an isolated action by a child who is on the fringe. Children traditionally did not gang up against other children unless they had a common thread. In other words, a group of tough boys might have ganged up on a "weaker" boy, but it was not common for children who had an unrelated reason for joining in to do so. Part of this comes from the opportunity presented for power, when children can join in on bullying that was started by someone else. The targets also realize that bullying at school may end up online. This is a big fear for children today and parents need to realize it. Children know how to find things on the internet, so it is often only a matter of time before the opinion that they have heard at school, ends up on someone's MySpace page. Even after more than 20 years of the internet being part of our daily lives, we still have a very difficult time realize that things that we see on television and read on the internet are not necessarily true. Something about seeing something imprinted through the media makes the sting of bullying much harder to forget or overlook.

But one more ingredient to this already dangerous mixture has added an insidious danger and it is that ingredient that I believe has really put the culture that our children are living in over the edge.

That ingredient is stress and the resulting frustration from stress. 

Frustration in children has emerged from several fronts. The first one comes from the same frustration that their parents are feeling. In any extended time of war, people will begin to get frustrated. Parents are away from their families, people are dying, money is being spent somewhere else and bad news 

In my opinion, it is not an option to leave a child in a situation where that child believes the negative aspects of messages received through bullying. While there is an excellent chance that bullied children will get over the negative messages, there is also an undeniable possibility that the negative messages will have long term emotional consequences and in some cases children have been known to attempt suicide. Given the rash of recent suicides and the ability of the internet and television to spark ideas in the minds of impressionable children, we cannot take the chance. In the United Kingdom, earlier this year, ten year old Cameron McWilliams hung himself in his bedroom window because he felt guilt over his desire to wear little girls underwear to bed. In a stunning irony, eleven year old Cameron McDonald, a school mate of McWilliams, also hung himself shortly after in what police called a copy cat suicide. According to reports, McDonald was so mesmerized with the suicide of the 'other Cameron' he became obsessed with the suicide and repeated the act on himself. We no longer live in a world where the power of suggestion transmitted instantaneously through media and the internet can be ignored.Home Children do not think about killing themselves out of their 

own thought processes. A child who commits suicide got that idea from  somewhere else, and because it is difficult to buffer a child from knowing what is going on in the world, we have to help children who may have bullying injuries.


Aside from suicide however, lay many other potential dangers to children who have been bullied. There are almost too many possible consequences to cover at one time, which is why professional help is often the best solution. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention a few of the more obvious examples:


Bullying about appearance -

Can lead to - Negative self image, negative body image, negative sense of self worth

Can manifest itself in - Seeking approval through sex, provocative dressing, even prostitution, drug use, gang participation

Bullying about popularity -

Can lead to - Frustration, anger, peer relationship problems

Can manifest itself in - Vengeful/hurtful behavior and backstabbing, stress and alcohol use, poor social development and negative feelings


Bullying about size, strength, athletic ability -

Can lead to - Low self esteem, sexual problems

Can manifest itself in - Homosexuality or other paraphillia (I do not believe that all homosexuality is a symptom of trauma, here. I do believe that many children are born with a predisposition towards same sex attraction and that it is sometimes explored and imprinted in the absence of any traumatic experience. However, I also believe that it can either be created or brought out from traumatic experiences of this kind.), risk taking behavior, drug and alcohol use, and more.

I reiterate once again, that not all bullied children are at risk of trauma from bullying. I have worked with many boys who were small or weak or effeminate who knew they were a bit different, but who were confident and well adjusted enough that they did not crumble under the weight of occasional bullying. I have seen hundreds of children who were being bullied and handled it just fine and in fact I would prefer to let a child handle it himself if it seems like he's able to do it (which they very often are). Adults do not need to step in always and equipping children to defend themselves actually helps them to feel more confident and more empowered than an adult solving it. It is critical that we as adults do not insist that a bullied child is injured, but it is also critical that we do not ignore the possibility that any bullied child could be injured and therefore we have to be there to ask questions to determine if something could be going on that we can help with. After twenty plus years of working with youth, I have a pretty good idea of which kids are going to be just fine on their own. But if I'm not sure, it never hurts to ask. Adults who are aware of the impact that bullying can have are able to teach kids to be empathetic towards each other and might just be able to notice when a young child is so severely impacted by bullying that she might be driven to do something that cannot be reversed.

the Chilling story of megan meier

* The chilling events surrounding Megan Meier's bullying and eventual suicide are summarized below, taken directly from Wikipedia. I believe that Wikipedia information is public domain but if not, please let me know.

Soon after opening an account on MySpace, Meier received a message from Lori Drew, using a fabricated account attributed to a 16-year-old boy, Josh Evans. Meier and "Josh" became online friends, but never met in person or spoke. Meier thought he was attractive. Meier began to exchange messages with this person, and was described by family as having had her "spirits lifted". This person claimed to have just moved to the nearby city of O'Fallon, was home schooled, and did not yet have a phone number. .

On October 15, 2006, the tone of the messages changed, with Drew saying (via the account) "I don't know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I've heard that you are not very nice to your friends". Similar messages were sent; some of Megan's messages were shared with others; and bulletins were posted about her. According to Meier's father Ronald Meier, and a neighbor who had discussed the hoax with Drew, the last message sent by the Evans account read: "Everybody in O'Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you." Meier responded with a message reading “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” The last few correspondences were made via AOL Messenger instead of Myspace. She was found twenty minutes later in her closet; Megan had hanged herself. Despite attempts to revive her, she was pronounced dead the following day. . . . . .

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