The Reason Foundation, a self-described “libertarian” think-tank funded by the Koch Family Foundations and tied strongly to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, is now trying to downplay the severity of bullying young people experience. In a column and interview with the Wall Street Journal, Reason Vice President Nick Gillespie suggests that kids “are safer and better-behaved” than in decades past and that parents are just “overprotective and thin-skinned”:
But is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis,” as so many now claim? I don’t see it. I also suspect that our fears about the ubiquity of bullying are just the latest in a long line of well-intentioned yet hyperbolic alarms about how awful it is to be a kid today.[...]
Now that schools are peanut-free, latex-free and soda-free, parents, administrators and teachers have got to worry about something. Since most kids now have access to cable TV, the Internet, unlimited talk and texting, college and a world of opportunities that was unimaginable even 20 years ago, it seems that adults have responded by becoming ever more overprotective and thin-skinned.
Gillespie relies on data that suggests that bullying has not increased, but he only refers to reports about what is documented in schools. Despite acknowledging the technology young people have access to, he completely ignores the significant impact that cyberbullying now has on young people. Last year, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that nine out of ten have witnessed the cyberbullying of their peers. A similar Associated Press-MTV poll found that about half of young people regularly encounter discriminatory slang in their online communications, and 54 percent of them think it’s okay to use such language in their circle of friends because “I know we don’t mean it.”
In addition, even if in-school bullying is no more severe than when Gillespie grew up, plenty of new studies demonstrate severe long-term consequences from that bullying that implore a better response than just telling young people to tolerate “lower-level harassment.” For example, LGBT youth who are targeted for their identities are 5.6 times more likely to experience mental health challenges as they age, such as depression, suicide attempts, and substance abuse. In fact, one study has shown that anti-gay stigma can lead to suicidal thoughts that last a lifetime.
It’s unsurprising that Gillespie shied away from discussing anti-LGBT bullying, which is where the “supposed crisis” is most exacerbated. According to GLSEN’s climate survey from 2009 (more recent than the data Gillespie cites), nine out of ten LGBT students experience anti-gay harassment at school. A new study released in January found that nearly half of students and teachers in elementary schools even hear language like “that’s so gay” on a regular basis. Instead, Gillespie invoked the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that defends the religious free speech of students, often when it is anti-gay in nature. In other words, he’d rather highlight the work of those defending the bullies than those defending their victims.
Regardless of whether bullying is better or worse than in years past, it’s a significant problem. To trivialize its impact is to discount the real consequences its victims face.