For decades, Paul Harvey’s radio segments told us “the rest of the story.” In today’s instant “breaking news” environment, when we hear about something online, on TV news, or in the papers, we get some, but not all, of the facts. Critical information, context and nuance are often missing. This is particularly true in so many of the “bullying-causes-suicide” stories of recent months.
Media coverage that sensationalizes and simplifies these tragedies may be helpful in raising awareness of bullying and cyberbullying as issues, but may also do harm by leaving important information out of the story. In an important article everyone should read, Kelly McBride at the Poynter Institute points out some of the problems in the way bullying, cyberbullying and suicide are reported.
Suicides are typically the result of a combination of factors. Bullying may play a role, but is only one piece of a complicated puzzle. Repeating the “bullying-causes-suicide” story line creates a false, misleading and unhelpful public understanding of both bullying and suicide.
By sensationalizing and simplifying the story, press reports can unintentionally leave the impression that suicide is a rational, perhaps the only, solution to bullying. There is some evidence that these kinds of stories may also create a “contagion effect” that leads to copycat suicides.
These stories seldom describe the warning signs we should look for, or what concerned friends and family can do if they suspect a loved one is contemplating suicide.
Kids see, hear, and talk about these stories. So what’s a parent, teacher, or concerned adult to do?
The next time a story of bullying and suicide hits the headlines, make it a teachable moment. Make sure you know the facts, the warning signs, and what you can do. If your child is old enough to talk about it, make sure he or she knows that, no matter how bad life may seem, there are ways to make it better. Help them learn what to look for and what they can do if they’re worried about a friend. A great place to start is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
No one wants to hear about a child taking their own life, for whatever combination of causes, and no one wants to tolerate or encourage bullying. Well-meaning people (and journalists), wanting to help, but armed with bad information or misconceptions can sometimes make a bad situation worse. We all need to think about the rest of the story and learn to recognize the hype and hysterics for what they are, dig deeper and learn the facts, and check with the experts for guidance on the positive actions we can take.
Frank Gallagher is Executive Director of Cable in the Classroom (CIC), the education foundation of the cable telecommunications industry. He is a specialist in media and information literacy, internet safety, digital citizenship, and the impact of media on children and is a former middle school math teacher. Photo credit: Microsoft Office Clip Art