ABC News reports that close to 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and around 160,000 kids stay home from school every day out of fear of being bullied. Up to 10 percent of students either drop out or transfer to another school due to bullying. In the Internet age, cyberbullying has become a significant additional problem. According to research on cyberbullying by the PEW Research Center Internet & American Life Project, 88 percent of students surveyed have witnessed peers being mean or cruel online. This translates to 2.7 million students being bullied by 2.1 million other students, according to 2010 statistics.
But it is not just children. Up to 25 percent of adults experience bullying at work, where criticism focuses on the employee rather than the work. Bullying can also happen when students and teachers bully each other, or in adult social groups and in families. Apparently, the failure to build social and educational communities that cultivate respect for the dignity of the other has an effect that carries over into adulthood.
Bullying has serious consequences for physical and mental health. Among kids, suicide is the third-leading cause of death (about 4,400 deaths a year), and for every suicide, there are over 100 suicide attempts. Bullying is heavily correlated with suicide, as more than half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.
Conversely, bullying also influences teen murder: students of all ages who commit homicide are twice as likely as their victims to have been victims of bullying. Among adults, those who are bullied have a higher risk for anxiety, clinical depression, stroke, and myocardial infarction (heart attack).
There has been a recent surge of interest in bullying with studies on the nature of animal bullying, movies about bullying, campaigns against college hazing, and the research of social inclusion. In addition, there have been efforts to curb bullying in schools. There are comprehensive programs, such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, created by Norwegian professor Dr. Dan Olweus, that attempt to modify behavior in elementary and junior high schools. However, even a simple approach can sometimes work. In a Middle and High School program in Rochester, Minnesota, this year, intervention has been the key, with the premise that most students do not bully and can become part of the solution. Focusing on a pattern of repeat abuse, the school administration has encouraged students, teachers, parents, and bystanders to report instances of bullying to the school administration, which then quickly acts to stop the bullying. As a result, bullying is cut off before it can become a chronic problem. In the middle school, for example, 76 percent of students had no visits to the principal’s office, and 10 percent only had one visit during the school year, allowing the administration to work on the 14 percent who were more likely to engage in bullying.
This program is in accord with the fundamental modern principle of in loco parentis (in place of a parent), in which a school legally takes the place and responsibility of parents when a child is left in their care. Teachers and administrators must be attentive to the emotional harm that happens outside of the classroom (hallways, recess, lunchroom), but this does not dismiss the responsibility of parents to take the emotional pulse of their child. Ultimately, chief responsibility falls upon each student who is privy to the interpersonal dynamics firsthand. We must not merely teach our students to cease from bullying. We must teach them to intervene when we witness acts of bullying. “Don’t stand by the blood of your fellow!” So much of bullying happens not because of bad intentions but due to group dynamics and social pressures. We must diffuse and attack these group forces. There is no place for threats, put downs, spreading rumors, and pretending to be someone else.
In Jewish thought, technology is neither good nor bad, as it can be used either way: to heal, build bridges, and to learn, but also to create real damage. According to the Jewish laws of lashon hara (evil speech), real damage can happen through words. At the least, it can hurt another’s image or self-esteem and cause emotional pain. At worst, however, it can lead to bodily harm and suicide.
It is very difficult, due to the human tendency to be self-absorbed, to truly value another as much as oneself and to fulfill the rabbinic value that “Your friend’s dignity should be as precious to you as your own” (Avot 2:10).
The effect of social intimidation and mockery truly is lethal. “Why is gossip like a three-pronged tongue? Because it kills three people: the person who says it, the person who listens to it, and the person about whom it is said” (Arakhin 15b). Shaming another is considered a life and death issue. The Gemarrah teaches that “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood,” (Bava Metzia 58b) since “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). The rabbis teach again and again that to shame another is akin to murder.
Another form of bullying is through nicknames. The Rambam teaches that “It is forbidden to call someone by a name they dislike” (Deot 6:8). The rabbis of the Talmud teach that “One who gives his neighbor a bad name, can never gain pardon” (Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Kamma 8:7).
We need a new educational model to address bullying. It cannot simply be with the stick punishing bullying. Rather, it is about educating students about power dynamics as a psychological practice and cultivating meditational practices and group exercises around the awareness of the feelings of others as a spiritual practice.
Whether bullying is emotional, verbal, or physical, and whether it is among adults or children, it can never be tolerated. Bullying does not just happen where we would expect it in schools, prisons, and on playing fields. It happens in the workplace across industries. Most of all, if we wish to address bullying among kids, we must address it among the role models of children. Bullying happens right before our eyes every day in subtle ways. We can model for our children what it means to see the dignity in all people that we encounter.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.