Advice Column, Health, Tween & Teen

Bullying and Teen Suicide

  • The South African Depression and Anxiety Group
  • Category Advice Column, Health, Tween & Teen

by Stephanie Harel

“For 2 years, Johnny, a quiet 13-year-old boy was a human play-thing for some of his classmates. The teenagers badgered Johnny for money, forced him to swallow weeds and drink milk mixed with detergent, beat him up in the restroom and tied a string around his neck, leading him around as a pet”. (Olweus, 1995 – as cited in Marsh & Wolfe, Abnormal Child Psychology, 4th edition, 2010, p. 164).

Someone once said that suicide happens when the fear of life exceeds the fear of death… A most chilling definition of what it means to take one’s life.

The literature on teen bullying is voluminous and yet, it is a social ill that remains largely ignored. Bullying is an old concept that we are all familiar with. However, bullying in schools today continues to be rife, and South African schools are not exempt from it. This hostile form of antisocial behaviour has almost gained the status of social pandemic. It is a phenomenon that often has tragic consequences, as is apparent in websites entitled ‘bullying stats’. Nowadays teen suicides by victims of bullies are more frequently reported.

Bullying happens when one or more people expose another to unpleasant actions that take the form of physical offense, verbal insults and deliberate alienation from a group. Irrespective of the angle that bullying takes, its overriding intention remains the same throughout the world: it presents itself as coward disguised as macho, it creates an imbalanced power relationship where the victim is incapable of defence. Although it is important to note that girls differ from boys in the ways they bully others, whereby girls use more indirect forms of social aggression such as gossiping and spreading rumours whilst boys are more directly threatening, it is just as important to bear in mind that whatever form it takes, bullying is universally offensive and can cause death.

Understanding the profile of a bully may help to create awareness and may increase the knowledge of those who are empowered to make a difference in schools. Typical bullies are usually aggressive towards both peers and adults. They are often impulsive, have a need to dominate others, are physically stronger than their peers, have little empathy and derive satisfaction from inflicting pain on their victims.

More recently, bullying has adopted technology as an additional means of inflicting harm on its victims. The widespread access to the Internet and cell phones has led to new forms of bullying. Threats, insults, harassment and intimidation now reach victims by emails, text messaging and defamatory websites. This new channel of violence has taken on unprecedented momentum – Internet bullying in the USA is believed to be even more common than face-to-face bullying. “Technology has wider implications. Because social media never sleeps, bullying today has no boundaries. Previously home provided some reprieve from bullying at school; today a victim has no place to hide. The onslaught continues 24/7, beyond the classroom and the playground, via cyberspace. Technology has stretched the limits of bullying by adding a timeless psychological element to it that could intensify its impact.”

Without major school interventions and policies, the prevalence of bullying will remain high. Besides suicide and other tragic consequences that this social menace brings, bullying has further implications. In the USA research has shown that nearly 40% of boys who were bullies in school were convicted of repeated criminal offenses by the time they were 24 years old. So bullying has a long lifespan. Furthermore, in discussions on bullying, the spotlight is often on the bully; to date, not much consideration has been given to reactions of the victim that survives. Victims might be stereotypically thought of as anxious, submissive and physically weak, but resentment is most definitely a trait that they could possess, a dormant trait that is nonetheless present. Once resentment awakens, it could be fuelled by the incessant pattern of bullying, it could spiral out of control. Resentment leads to anger and from there on to full blown retaliation that may know no boundaries. When a ‘victim turns perpetrator’ the number of casualties could be fatal. Albeit reluctantly, we are reminded of the school shootings in the USA – could those terrifying acts have perhaps been products of a long history of bully victims?

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