Bullying — escaping the schoolyard
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The letter I received a few years ago after a program I presented at a middle school comes back to me whenever the subject of bullying comes up. Written by a sixth-grade student, it summed up the terrible impact that bullying can have.

“Last year my best friend turned on me all of a sudden — she started calling me names and spread it all around the school. She even got other girls in my class to turn on me too,” the young girl wrote, adding that after going into a deep depression and not being able to focus on her studies she failed the sixth grade. What is remarkable is that ultimately she said she was glad she failed sixth grade because it would mean she could “finally get away” from her bullies.  

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To think that a child would be happy to fail in school just to stop being bullied shows the desperation felt by many victims. In the past, I often wondered how children like her are today. I’ve said countless silent prayers that they survived the treacherous bullying landscape found in too many schoolyards that has led to too many tragic results.

But, as I think about bullying, I also wonder how those same kids see the world around them. Do they look at society and public discourse through the prism of anti-bullying lessons they learned as children? Or do they see the name calling and baseless accusations across social media and think their teachers and counselors were all wrong? Do they see adult behavior that implies that words don’t really hurt as long as they further an agenda?

A decade or so ago, parents, teachers and counselors discovered something that their children and students had already figured out. One of the unanticipated consequences of the rise of the internet was that it opened the schoolyard gates and let bullying behavior escape. Suddenly, a child who could make it past the gauntlet of taunts or name-calling at school could no longer find peace or refuge in the quiet of his or her own home. Turning on a computer at home meant lifting on online tollgate that bullies could speed through to continue persecuting their victims. Only now the bullying was in front of a worldwide audience and not just a few like-minded individuals on the backseat of a bus or in the corner of a schoolyard.  

Have those bullies of years ago grown up to become the internet trolls who mercilessly hound public figures or their perceived political ‘enemies?’ Has the behavior grown up and spread like a virus to nearly every corner of social discourse?

I’m not sure of the answer.

Bullying can have long-term negative consequences for both the victims and for those who bully others. As an osteopathic physician, I can tell you being bullied is associated with short and long-term psychosocial outcomes, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. And children who bully others are also at a greater risk for complications, including antisocial personality disorders, delinquent behavior and increased alcohol abuse, among others.

We have learned — perhaps too late for some children — that, like the internet, the rude, nasty commentary of social media seems to have no boundaries. We have all been witness to attacks on innocent people – shamed and humiliated – just because they have the temerity to express a view or present an image or persona that others don’t like or don’t agree with.

This past summer actress and comedienne Leslie Jones signed off from her Twitter account after enduring taunts and hate-filled comments following the debut this summer of Ghostbusters, a movie she starred in.

Why has this become so commonplace?   

Perhaps, what we are seeing from all sides in the current election season is not an illness, but merely a symptom of what we’ve become. There’s an old adage about not being able to put a genie back into a bottle. But I don’t think that I necessarily believe that about bullying.

If we continue to teach our children well, and if we continue to remind them that there are two basic rules about bullying – treat everyone with respect and don’t remain silent when they experience or witness bullying – we might begin to hear our own voices and heed those lessons ourselves.

Maybe we can stem the social media flood of insults, accusations and body shaming and harness the internet to corral the vast power of our collective intellect to create real, meaningful and impactful solutions to the problems that plague us.

Dr. Jennifer Caudle is a Osteopathic Family Physician and assistant professor of Family Medicine at Rowan University-School of Osteopathic Medicine. She is a regular on-air medical correspondent for local and national news networks, appearing on Fox News, The Dr. Oz Show, CNN, CBS Philly 3 News, TvOne, Doctors Radio (Sirius XM) and many others. Her health articles have been published in The Daily Beast, CNN.com, The Huffington Post, DoctorOz.com, ABCNews.com and she has been quoted widely in publications such as Prevention Magazine, Men's Health, Glamour Magazine, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Dr. Oz The Good Life and many others. She can be reached on twitter/Instagram @drjencaudle and at www.jennifercaudle.com.  


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