BOB GARFIELD: A teen gets bullied online, a bullied teen commits suicide. In September, it was Rebecca Sedwick, from Lakeland, Florida. As these terrible episodes keep occurring, the coverage of them presents a simple case of cause and effect; bullying leads to suicide. Based on the prominence of these stories on the news, we seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of fatal texting.
CORRESPONDENT: Rebecca Ann Sedwick was laid to rest today. Police say she took her life after getting bullied relentlessly by kids on the Internet.
CORRESPONDENT: The sheriff’s message was clear: Words can kill.
BOB GARFIELD: But it’s not so, says the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, who wrote a story titled, categorically, “Bullying is Not on the Rise and It Does Not Lead to Suicide.”
KELLY McBRIDE: The narrative is like something out of an ABC afterschool movie special. The mean kids bully the vulnerable kid and the vulnerable kid, in an act of desperation, commits suicide. The overall cumulative effect of the storytelling, as we recount these instances over and over again, is a public misunderstanding of all of the science around bullying and around teen suicides. We’re really, I think, as journalists, sometimes doing more harm than good.
BOB GARFIELD: Obviously, there is a small number of teenagers who take their own lives, a very large percentage of teenagers who are bullied in one way or another in high school. As a matter of just statistical rationality, the correlation doesn't make any sense, right?
KELLY McBRIDE: Right. The number of teenagers who commit suicide has been relatively stable, and even among teenagers who commits suicide, certainly not all of them have been bullied. Experts in mental health will always caution medical people, reporters, parents, teachers from assigning a single causation to a suicide because it causes us as a society to not pay attention to the many factors that might contribute to unstable mental health.
BOB GARFIELD: Getting back to the Sedwick case, the child takes her life, the local sheriff decides to prosecute a bunch of little kids. And the media cannot not report the story, but it's the way that the story was reported that you believe just broke all sorts of obvious rules of skeptical reporting.
KELLY McBRIDE: So they quoted the sheriff, who, who cited this particular incendiary social media post that one of the girls made, and, and he said, “What was I supposed to do, leave her out there so that she can go hurt someone else?" That quote, in and of itself, implies this very simplistic understanding of teen social dynamics, that this one girl could be so powerful that she could say something mean on Facebook and somebody would then go kill themselves.
BOB GARFIELD: Something else that gets glossed over, as you alluded to earlier, are the particulars of the child's mental health and family history, of depression or other kinds of mental illness, of family pathology, substance abuse, and so forth. Have we just missed that aspect of the story altogether?
KELLY McBRIDE: Well, first of all, it doesn't fit with this narrative, and it also is hard material to deal with because it sounds like you're excusing the bullying or blaming the victim. You know, who wants to pile on this poor child?
BOB GARFIELD: And grieving parents.
KELLY McBRIDE: Exactly, and there’s some territory that just seems like it's inappropriate to wade into. And it probably is, which is why, when we cover this issue, we need to stop looking at the specific cases and look at the trends, instead, because then we can talk about the fact that most teens who commit suicide exhibited multiple warning flags, and how parents and other teenagers and teachers can intervene in ways that prevent suicide. Suicide is preventable. And we forget to tell people that.
BOB GARFIELD: I remember a few years ago there was a suicide at a major university, followed immediately by a second suicide and a third, and perhaps more. Can the media coverage of these supposed cyber bullying suicides actually make the problem worse?
KELLY McBRIDE: Especially with teenagers. There's a couple of discrete studies that show an increase in what researchers call suicide ideation, which is getting the idea to commit suicide when you are exposed to the message that suicide was a solution for somebody else in a similar circumstance to you, which is why it is harmful to suggest that the suicide was a result of bullying, because what we know is that many, many children are bullied, between 25 and 33 percent, by most studies, in some studies, up to 50 percent.
Planting the idea that, hey, suicide is an answer to this problem, you could create a contagion effect. That's worse than just misinforming the public, when you actually cause real harm.
BOB GARFIELD: Kelly, many thanks.
KELLY McBRIDE: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Kelly McBride is a faculty member of the Poynter Institute.