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Ethics Education About the Harmful Effects of Bullying

The Golden Rule and Bullying

Recent bullying-related studies suggest there is a strong link between bullying and suicide. Many parents, teachers, and students learn the dangers of bullying and reach out to help students who may be at risk of committing suicide. Though too many adults still see bullying as "just part of being a kid," it is a serious problem that leads to many negative effects for victims including a damaged self-image, a loss of self-confidence and, in the extreme, suicide.

The most recent victim of bullying was Kenneth Weishuhn who, after telling classmates at South O’Brien High School in Paullina, Iowa last winter that he was gay, began to receive voicemail threats on his cellphone. Kenneth had to endure ant-gay slurs and harassment that got so bad that teachers had to stand guard in hallways. On April 15, Kenneth hanged himself in the garage of his home.

The statistics on bullying and suicide are alarming:

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the Center for Disease Control. For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it.
  • Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University
  • A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying
  • 10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide, according to the study above
  • According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying

Bully-related suicide can be connected to any type of bullying, including physical bullying, emotional bullying, cyber-bullying, and sexting, or circulating suggestive or nude photos or messages about a person.

Some of the warning signs of suicide can include:

  • Showing signs of depression, like ongoing sadness, withdrawal from others, losing interest in favorite activities, or trouble sleeping or eating
  • Talking about or showing an interest in death or dying
  • Engaging in dangerous or harmful activities, including reckless behavior, substance abuse, or self injury
  • Giving away favorite possessions and saying goodbye to people
  • Saying or expressing that they can't handle things anymore
  • Making comments that things would be better without them

The question I deal with in this blog is how best to deal with bullying not from the perspective of the person who has been bullied. It’s quite clear that talking to that person and getting counseling and, perhaps, medical help is warranted. It’s also quite clear that schools need to develop tough policies on bullying and hold the bullies accountable for their behavior. As for the target of bullying, people who are thinking about suicide should be proactive and talk to someone right away. They should talk to a parent, sibling, trusted friend and, most important, the school counselor. They can also call a free suicide hotline, such as 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

In a positive sign, more and more schools have adopted a zero tolerance on bullying. Some state lawmakers are even willing to criminalize the behavior. Unfortunately, many young people do not consider the consequences of their actions before acting so I have my doubts about the effectiveness of legal consequences.

I believe education is a must if we are ever to stop bullying in schools and outside the classroom. It must be targeted to include ethics education to help stem the tide of bullying? After all, a sound program of ethics education should be taught in schools even without a past history of bullying. Ethics education at a young age can teach young people values such as respect, responsibility, accountability, caring, compassion, and empathy – all essential characteristics of an ethical person.

Bullying education is not any different from other types of ethics education. The discussion should focus on the rights of the bullied, that is, freedom to be whatever a person wants to be without derision or harmful behavior targeted against that person. We may not like what a person stands for or how one acts, but that person has a right to be that way and as long as the behavior doesn’t harm another, it should be respected and accepted.

Bullying education should teach young people to examine those harms – to the bullied, the family and the school – so that bullies learn that their actions have consequences. A good tool is a video such as the movie “Bully”. It illustrates the harmfulness of bullying and how communities are getting together to stop it. It should be shown to parents as well as to school children, and no age is too young to start the ethics education.

In ethics we teach the universality of one’s actions. It is based on the Kantian categorical imperative that we should act in ways that we would want others to act in similar situations for similar reasons. In other words, we wouldn’t want to be bullied so we should not bully others. It goes back to the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 19, 2012