Has Social Media Made Bullying Worse in Maryland?

Is bullying really worse than it used to be? If it is, should we blame the Internet?

The Howard County story of Noah Brocklebank has gained national attention as the latest high-profile story about bullying. That often prompts the question from Patch readers: Is bullying really worse than it used to be? If it is, should we blame the Internet?

There’s no consensus among experts on those questions, but there is consensus that 1) bullying is a huge problem that’s only beginning to be addressed, and 2) new forms of bullying require new forms of support.

Once people understand the scale of the problem, they usually have a new question: How can I help?

The scale of the bullying problem

About 18 percent of U.S. students said they are afraid that someone will hurt or bother them at school, according to a survey on youth risk behavior published by the CDC in June 2012. According to the same survey, 16 percent said they'd been “cyberbullied” through email, online chat, instant messaging, social media or text.

We’ve seen an increased focus on bullying over the past two decades by the media and by schools. (The first anti-bullying law was passed in Georgia in 1999, after the Columbine shooting. As of January 2012, 48 U.S. states had anti-bullying laws in effect.)

The bullying-suicide connection

A 2008 review of studies conducted by researchers at Yale found signs of a link between bullying and suicidal thoughts in children. “While there is no definitive evidence that bullying makes kids more likely to kill themselves, now that we see there’s a likely association, we can act on it and try to prevent it,” said Yale’s Young-Shin Kim, M.D.

What does that “likely association” look like in an individual case? Consider Jessica Marie Laney, a 16-year-old Florida high school student who committed suicide December 9, 2012. Laney had an account on Ask.fm, a social media website that allows users to ask questions and make anonymous comments.

Cruel comments on Laney’s Ask.fm page (jessicamarieee1) referred to her as “fat” and a “loser.” One anonymous comment that appeared shortly before her death read, “Can you just kill yourself already.”

Some friends think comments like that played a role in her death. But police and school officials don’t draw any direct connection.

How Can I Help?

Bullying is now a subject of intense scrutiny in the media, in schools, and among experts. But a bullied student needs to hear from peers and authority figures.

The most important thing you can do: If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

And many other people choose to use social media as a way to fight back against bullying. Brocklebank’s story is an example of that, and so is P.J. Moccaldi, a fellow classmate and friend of Laney's: After Laney died, Moccaldi created the Facebook page RIP Jessica Laney Never Forgotten, where people can share thoughts about her. In one post, he writes, “Remember what you say to people you never know the outcome countless lives have been takin from bullys.” 

See related links:

Bullied Columbia Teen Receives Thousands of Messages of Support After Mother's Social Media Plea

Guest Column: Why I Bullied

Ray Rice Moved by Stories of Bullying


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