The Power of a Bully

When treading the fragile landscape of teen suicide, empathic, scientifically grounded reporting can save lives. So why are some journalists getting the bullying and suicide story so wrong?

Welcome to Into the Fray, a new column by Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro, exploring controversies, issues and innovations in trauma reporting.

Two teenagers, two deaths. Phoebe Prince moved at age 15 from a small town in Ireland’s County Clare to South Hadley, Massachusetts. Tyler Clementi, an accomplished violinist from Ridgewood, New Jersey, was a freshman at Rutgers University. Both were on the receiving end of sexually-charged humiliation from within their social circles. Classmates taunted Phoebe Prince as an "Irish slut;" Tyler Clementi's roommate secretly taped a same-sex encounter and streamed it over the Internet. Within the space of nine months, both Tyler Clementi and Phoebe Prince killed themselves. Both suicides continue to make international headlines.

Those are the basic facts. But just how strong is the connection between bullying, in its many forms, and suicide? In the Prince and Clementi suicides, local prosecutors pursue controversial criminal charges against the young people accused of perpetrating those degrading acts. And that, in turn, is inspiring a journalistic backlash: a growing heap of stories that question not just whether prosecutors are overzealous but whether teenagers' victimization by their peers is itself an overblown issue. For reporters, cases like that of Prince and Clementi pose a challenge: what is the story here?

It was a pair of Boston Globe journalists – reporter Kathy McCabe and columnist Kevin Cullen – who first brought the Phoebe Prince bullying case to wide public attention. "The name-calling, the stalking, the intimidation was relentless," Cullen wrote in a searing column 10 days after Phoebe hanged herself.

The backlash began seven months later in an online magazine. Emily Bazelon – a lawyer, an editor of Slate, and a contributor to its XX Factor blog – devoted thousands of written words and broadcast interviews (including a Today Show appearance) to investigating Phoebe Prince's life, in both Ireland and the United States, over the years before her classmates started taunting her. Bazelon alleges that Phoebe had the psychiatric equivalent of a prior-arrest record: she had been prescribed antidepressant medication, had made an earlier attempt at suicide, and had been known to cut herself. Bazelon asserted that Phoebe herself had once been accused of bullying a classmate in Ireland – an allegation since disputed in the Irish press by students and educators who knew Phoebe. It was, suggests Bazelon, these past difficulties, and not the tormenting by her classmates, that should be considered her cause of death. Should teenagers be held responsible, she wonders, for acting out toward a girl who turned out to be far more unstable than any of them understood?

Bazelon took the same skeptical stance after Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge, shortly after learning of the videotaping by his roommate, Dharun Ravi. Clementi's Internet postings about the taping episode, she wrote, seemed "relatively unemotional; Can we stop for a moment before we blame Dharun and Molly Wei, the other student who allegedly participated in the taping, for Tyler's suicide?" Bazelon entreats. "...Maybe something entirely unrelated prompted Tyler to choose this moment to make his awful jump."

Newsweek reporter Jessica Bennett amplified the argument in the magazine's October 4, 2010 issue: "Is the notion of being bullied to death valid?" she asks. Or are the real perps in this story, Bennett proposes, "the helicopter parents who want to protect their kids from every stick and stone" as well as "the insta-vigilance of the Internet," driving a "booming anti-bullying industry?"

While startlingly chilly, Bazelon's and Bennett's dispatches might well be credited as attempts at sober assessment. Except that their readers are never told one crucial fact: for more than 20 years, researchers have assembled specific evidence that harassment, intimidation and humiliation among children and young adults – whether person-to-person or, more recently, involving the Internet – can inflict deep, enduring and sometimes fatal wounds.

To cite only one example: This past June, a team headed by Columbia University psychologist Anat Brunstein Klomek reviewed worldwide research on bullying and suicide in childhood and young adulthood – a total of 31 studies. Writing in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Klomek and her colleagues found that both "in-person" bullying and Internet humiliation significantly increase the risk of young people's having suicidal thoughts or attempting to kill themselves.

That research team has devoted years to tracking suicide attempts from primary school onwards among 16,000 young adults in Finland, all of them born in 1981. Writing in 2009 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Klomek explicitly addressed the question that Bazelon, Bennett and others raise in the Prince and Clementi cases: If a teenager is already depressed, alienated or having mental health problems, can bullying really be to blame for suicide?

To answer that, Klomek looked at her 16,000 young Finns. She set aside all of those with evidence of pre-existing mental or behavior problems as children or teens. In the remainder she found some differences between boys and girls that corroborate earlier research: overall, females appear to be more vulnerable to bullying. She points out the perpetrators of bulling also show some increase in suicide risk. The bottom line, however, is sweeping and definitive: "Frequent victimization among girls has an effect that goes beyond childhood psychopathology," she writes. Victimization by peers can drive otherwise healthy girls to think of taking their own lives.

And if a teen – male or female – is already in distress, this greater vulnerability increases the likelihood that bullying and humiliation will be what Klomek calls “causal pathways” to suicide attempts.

Klomek is writing in the detached and careful language of the scientific researcher. For the anguished reality of “causal pathways,” look at the testimonies gathered by Dan Savage’s pathbreaking YouTube suicide-prevention site, the It Gets Better Project. The videos, aimed at gay teens and uploaded by younger and older adults, describe peer-inflicted emotional violence and how they managed to survive. “Kids would kick me in the head as I was getting books from my bottom locker,” says YouTube user dragonseed87, who grew up gay in a small Texas town. He uploaded his video on October 7 – one of many to recall the nightmare high school can be for GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) kids. “They would poke me in the butt with their pencils saying, ‘You enjoy that, faggot?’ I would get threatening IMs [Instant Messages] when I was online, from people I didn’t even know…Anytime I defended myself, I was the one sent to the office.” Dragonseed87 tried several times to kill himself, eventually showing up at school with bandages on his wrists.

Columbia’s Klomek is just one scholar among many in Scotland, Australia, the US, Japan, and other countries to reach the same conclusion: the kind of severe bullying dragonseed87 describes can push teenagers (and adults) into a degree of isolation and suicidal despair they would not otherwise have reached. For those who already suffer – whether threatened and derided for being gay, or struggling with depression, isolation or dislocation – bullying can be the gasoline flung at a flame.

And what about the Internet? What happens when Facebook postings and chat messages suddenly turn into a hellhole of ethnic bigotry (being labeled an “Irish slut”) or sexual exposure (like having an encounter streamed live)? Klomek’s research in Finland gives an answer: “The toll daily struggles, stresses and relative hopelessness take on some adolescents is exacerbated when Internet-based harassment is added to the equation.”

Why does all of this research matter for reporters? For one thing, when treading upon the fragile, difficult landscape of teen suicide, journalists have a special responsibility to educate themselves and to go beyond the phone call to the local university for an expert quote. The deep emotions stirred both in the immediate community and among news consumers in general by stories like those of Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi – fascination, guilt, sorrow, anger, confusion – make it all the more critical that the narratives journalists provide are strengthened by the evidence for which scientists and scholars have labored so hard – and for so long – to get right. That’s not insta-vigilance; it’s called reporting.

It’s also about that basic journalistic question: how to tell the story right. Whatever prior distress Tyler Clementi or Phoebe Prince brought to their encounters with people they thought were friends, blaming their suicides, coming on the heels of exceptional torment and humiliation, on past psychological struggles amounts to unconscionable victim-blaming. Lawyers have long recognized the “eggshell skull” theory – perpetrators who inflict savagery on a fragile victim are responsible for the outcome, regardless of whether that vulnerability was known to them. Journalists who make any claim on empathic storytelling need to reckon with the same standard.

Are criminal charges the right answer to a teenage suicide provoked by bigotry or sadistic bullying? That is its own argument. But the debate over accountibility and prevention needs to be informed by science and by a historical understanding of how long-tolerated abuses get challenged. Not too long ago, for instance, date rape was considered not worth prosecuting, let alone reporting in news stories. Now it’s a crime – thanks in no small part to researchers who documented both the prevalence of date rape and the psychological damage it inflicts; and to reporters, who over the years have gotten the message and put a once-taboo subject on page one. “Bullying” is now in the same position: the word may evoke harmless roughhousing and rites of emotional passage, but it actually encompasses a wide range of abuses – at least some of which, clinicians and researchers now understand, have the psychic impact of terrorism.

Stories of childhood suicide are often troubling to those who report them. Sometimes they may provoke reporters’ own buried memories of childhood vicimization – or of having been a victimizer. All the more important, then, to attend to our own presumptions, fears and blind spots. Suicide is also an issue where smart, empathic and informed reporting – as well as first-person testimonies like the It Gets Better Project – can save lives.

Perhaps some compassionate and imaginative reporting can even help retire the utterly inadequate word “bullying,” with its evocation of old-fashioned schoolyard tiffs and wheezy bromides like “sticks and stones..." That kind of language is not adequate to describe the torment Kevin Cullen so precisely defined in his column on Phoebe Prince last January. As a guest of the Ellen De Generes show, actor Colin Farrell, made clear with three words what Bazelon, Bennett and other debunkers could not manage with their thousands: “Bullying is torture.”

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Phoebe Prince's place of residence. The article has been updated to reflect that she, in fact, lived in South Hadley, Massachusetts.