Many school districts across the country are implementing anti-bullying policies after tragic reports of teenagers' suicide driven by bullying or cyberbullying. But experts say that cyberbullying is not a rising threat and bullying does not necessarily cause suicide.
Stopbullying.gov, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, said that no direct link was found between bullying and suicide. A variety of factors, including mental illness, can provide motive for a suicide. The federal government website said that linking every suicide incident to bullying is the wrong approach — and it is potentially dangerous to suggest suicide is a natural response to bullying, writes Robby Soave of The Daily Caller.
In Florida, 12-year-old teen Rebecca Sedwick recently killed herself after being relentlessly ridiculed by two other girls. The nation was shocked with this incident and the two girls were arrested.
"We decided that we can't leave her out there," said Polk County Police Sheriff Grady Judd, referring to one of the accused bullies, in a statement to The Christian Science Monitor. "Who else is she going to torment, who else is she going to harass? If we can find any charges we can bring against their parents, we will."
Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, said there is no scientific evidence that bullying causes suicide. According to McBride, Judd's assessment was premature.
"It is journalistically irresponsible to claim that bullying leads to suicide. Even in specific cases where a teenager or child was bullied and subsequently commits suicide, it's not accurate to imply the bullying was the direct and sole cause behind the suicide," McBride wrote.
Following news stories like Sedwick's suicide, several states decided to crack down on teen bullying by outlawing offensive speech both in person and online. New Jersey has developed a toughest anti-bullying law, which is leading to costly lawsuits over playground insults. Maryland is working directly with Facebook to police internet speech. This situation is worrying scholars, who schools say have overstepped their bounds.
According to researchers, the word "bullying" has been misused and abused in the last few years. It "too casually uttered about every hurt, slight and fight, too frequently used in place of teasing or fighting, and too often brought up before there's proof it happened."
In addition, cyberbullying has become a hotly-debated niche within the bullying sector. Research shows that cyberbullying is not a widespread issue and very few teens are actually impacted by it.
"There is very little scientific support to show that cyberbullying has increased over the past five to six years, and this form of bullying is actually a less frequent phenomenon," Dan Olweus, a psychologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, said in his 2012 study of cyberbullying.