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As We See It

Bullying: With no mercy rule for life, are kids the only ones in need of protection?

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Lex Cannon

After the recent 91-0 slaughter of a Texas high school football team, one father filed a formal bullying complaint against the winning coach. The state has no “mercy rule,” and the school district rejected the charge, but debate rages on about what constitutes bullying and who really needs protection.

Based on the bulk of resources devoted to awareness and prevention, the answer to that second one is: Kids. Adults get bullied, of course, but outside of workplace discrimination laws, there are far fewer efforts focused on the issue.

“It kind of lives below the radar,” says Christopher Heavey, an associate professor of psychology at UNLV. One reason may be that adults aren’t considered as vulnerable as children or teens, which Heavey thinks is justified. “Part of how we develop our emotional stability is having repeated instances in which bad things happen to us. … It’s an incremental process, and I think we do essentially develop a thicker skin ...”

Along with emotional calluses, Heavey says adults tend to have diverse social groups they can look to for support, whereas kids travel in insular packs and digital realms that can amplify personal conflict until it’s a “tidal wave.” “The insult that can be created via Twitter or Facebook can be so overwhelming in terms of their small, tight-knit social circle that it can really push kids over the edge,” he says.

Over that edge are school shootings and suicides. A tragic combination happened in Sparks, Nevada, on October 21, when a 12-year-old shot and wounded two classmates and killed a teacher and himself. The investigation is looking at bullying, the Associated Press reported, including a review of an anti-bullying video some students recently watched that depicted a child on a school bus carrying a gun. Whatever the motives in this case, a chilling stat on stopbullying.gov states: “In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.”

Even when outcomes aren’t deadly, it’s hard to fathom how children can bully so mercilessly. Heavey says it’s generally believed that they have less control over emotional responses because their frontal lobes are still developing, so they’re not as good as adults at thinking about the consequences of actions, including those tied to the innate desire for social status. “Some adults can step away from the instinctual or knee-jerk reaction and try to moderate their behavior more, but … it involves some degree of self-insight.”

Self-insight isn’t the dominant quality on display in grown-up culture, especially online. More like recreational hate. Given our biological and social advantages, you’d think adults would learn our own lesson about bullying and stop setting such a dismal example. Until there’s a mercy rule for life, think about that the next time you feel like bashing Miley Cyrus on YouTube. Her skin seems pretty thick, but it wasn’t that long ago she was just an innocent kid.

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Erin Ryan

Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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