Jamey Rodemeyer, a sweet and funny 14-year-old, was relentlessly bullied for being ‘girly’ for years before he committed suicide on Sept. 18 — just two weeks into his freshman year at Williamsville North High School.
The public outcry has been huge, with no less than pop icon Lady Gaga, who Jamey idolized, calling for action.
But lost in the outrage is this underlying, and utterly disconcerting, fact:
The depression and anxiety Jamey experienced in his short life as he grappled with his emerging sexuality, and the bullying he suffered as a result, is far too common among young people today, according to experts in adolescent behavior.
What also needs to be addressed is cyberbullying, which can intensify the emotional difficulties already caused by conventional bullying.
“Bullying has always been a problem,” Amanda Nickerson, director of the University at Buffalo Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bully Abuse and School Violence, told knotmove.com. “But cyberbullying – we didn’t have that ten years ago. There’s so much of it now.”
An AP-MTV poll released Sept. 27 found cyberbullying to be widespread, with 56 percent of the young people surveyed revealing that they had been victims of digital abuse at social-networking sites or via text messages. That was up from 50 percent in the same survey of 14-to-24 year olds in 2009.
About three-fourths of those questioned also said digital abuse is a “serious” problem for people in their age group.
Bullying – digital or otherwise – should not be viewed as just an adolescent rite of passage, experts note. To the contrary, the depression and other emotional problems it creates can follow victims on a long-term basis.
“It doesn’t seem to go away,” Janice DeLucia-Waak, also associated with UB’s anti-bullying center, warned in a recent video on the issue.
Jamey’s story reveals a lot about the life of today’s adolescents. In Jamey’s world, up to 15 percent of teens suffered symptoms of depression at any given time. Suicide was the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults, claiming up to 5,000 young lives a year.
Using the Internet to harass started during Jamey’s short life. The term ‘bullycide’ – defined as suicide believed to be the direct result of cyberbullying – was also born.
Difficult to diagnose
Jamey’ death also illustrates how complex dealing with adolescent depression can be. The teen years can be tough under the best of circumstances. Jamey had many struggles, but he also had friends and adults in his life who were trying to help.
“A lot of what should be done was being done,” Nickerson said.
According to news reports, Jamey’s parents and school officials knew of the bullying, which reached overwhelming proportions for Jamey at Heim Middle School. There were school-mediated sit-downs between the bullies and Jamey. He also received school counseling.
At home, his parents talked with Jamey and tried to help him cope. Life seemed better. In May, Jamey posted a video on YouTube promising ‘it does get better,’ as part of an online project by the same name that is meant to support bullied gay, lesbian and bisexual young people.
Meanwhile, his parents were following the advice of experts. They monitored Jamey’s online posts, keeping a keen eye on his Facebook account. But he didn’t tell them about his activity on other online sites, or his Tumblr blog. That is where the depth of his pain and depression surfaced, and where he talked of suicide.
His parents lack of tech savvy appears to have undermined their attempts to help him, Nickerson said. No doubt plenty of other parents can identify.
“Parents just aren’t aware,” she said.
How to help
In the wake of Jamey’s death, there has been talk of criminally prosecuting young bullies. That worries Nickerson. She believes it is wiser to educate young people, adults and the public in general about bullying and its consequences. That, she thinks, is the best way the problem prevent bullying in all its forms.
Her research, and the research of others, has shown that youngsters who bully are also at high risk for a variety of emotional disorders. This includes deep depression and suicide.
Many were bullied by someone else first in their lives.
“We really need to work with these kids,” Nickerson said. “We have to try to intervene, to stop it from escalating.
Here is some advice from Nickerson on dealing with bullying:
- Know the signs of bullying. Parents know their kids, and what they’re like. Unexplained cuts or bruises are classic signs, she said. But the signs may be more subtle. These include becoming unusually quiet, not wanting to go to school, avoiding social situations or claiming to be sick when there is no physical evidence.
- Get computers or any gadgets with Internet access of out a child’s bedroom. Put them in a space used by the whole family instead. This makes it easier to monitor children when they are online. Be careful with cell phones too; they are a potential source of abuse, including “sexting.” Some parents are turning to spyware to keep tabs on their kids’ online activities. Nickerson isn’t sure about that, but does find merit in decision. “I wouldn’t let my kids go out at 11 at night,” she says of her own youngsters, ages six and 11. “Why would I let them do something else (like having unmonitored Internet access) that might put them in danger?”
- Keep the lines of communication open. Children need to know they can go to their parents for help and protection. Parents, meanwhile, need to know they can count on school professionals.
- Know the signs that a child might be a bully. Nickerson says such signs might include hearing a youngster make derogatory remarks about other youngsters, like ‘He’s gay,’ or ‘He’s a wimp.’ Youngsters who bully are also often hostile and quick to anger. They try to assert power over others, including siblings.
Bullying can start as early as pre-school, she said. But it seems to escalate in middle school and often continues to high school and beyond.
What adults must understand, Nickerson said, is that they need to be appropriate role models. Teachers, parents and other adults should send the message that treating others with dignity and respect is the right thing to do.
“It seems like we live in a culture of anger and hostility,” she said. Does it spill over into the lives of youngsters? Maybe, Nickerson concludes.
“We all have to think about that.”