Shawn A. Newton
The Salem News
---- — When I was growing up, there was a saying by which I lived. You probably remember it, too: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. The author was unknown, but every kid seemed to know it by heart, because adults would often repeat it to us when we came home crying after a playground taunt.
Based upon the times in which we currently find ourselves, it appears that this saying needs amending — and perhaps constant revision. According to bullyingstatistics.org, approximately 42 percent of our children have been bullied online, and 58 percent report that something mean has been said to them. An even larger proportion of young people — roughly 77 percent — has admitted to being a victim of bullying of some type.
Bullying takes many forms. It’s not always the mean joke on a playground or in the hallway of school in between classes. If you ask someone who’s been a victim or a survivor of bullying, they might tell you that it can — and does — happen through social media (cyber bullying), through text messages, in the workplace and at home. It can also take the form of threats, physical assault, discrimination ... the list can go on and on.
What can be done about it? Simply put, bullying has to be taken seriously. Recognizing the problem and its repercussions, our own federal government held its first conference on bullying prevention in 2010, and the Office of Civil Rights published a letter to clarify the overlap of bullying and harassment. I would even take it a step further and say that prevention starts with you, and that you in turn have a responsibility to shape the values of a society that does not tolerate violence of any kind.
Sticks and stones are not the only things that can hurt us, and especially our children. Words, as we have seen far too frequently recently, do in fact kill our young people. It only takes watching the evening news to learn about people who took their own lives as a result of bullying. Although this is the worst of all outcomes, stopbullying.gov tells us that most children who are bullied do not engage in suicidal behavior. Many of those at risk are also managing other, contributing factors, factors that include problems at home or a lack of support from peers and their schools. Knowing this, we must all strive to stay engage and involve ourselves however we can with anti-bullying work. This can be done both formally and informally.
At my place of work, well-identified and intentional safe spaces have become vehicles through which students can share personal feelings and experiences; they empower people to speak out if someone is breaking a community standard. Find out if your school or place of work has a venue where people can report bullying, harassment and other forms of intimidation. Informally, it means standing up for someone who cannot stand up for him — or herself, and not letting hurtful jokes slide.
Simply put, if you see something, say something. I know that this is easier said than done, but put yourself in the place of the bullied one and think about how hard it might be for him or her. Another step you can take is to learn more about why bullying occurs in the first place. I believe that the simple act of understanding allows one to develop informed ideas about how to participate effectively in anti-bullying work. In reading other opinion pieces, I am always disturbed to read others express the feeling that bullying is a part of life and can never be stopped.
I prefer to live by the mantra that, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.” Bullying can be prevented, and I will continue to push and advocate for those who need my help most. I — and those who are suffering somewhere in silence — would be delighted to count on your standing up to be counted, as well.
Returning to the old saying that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” I’d like to suggest a slight modification. Today’s truth is that sticks and stones may break your bones, and words and silence and violence can — and often will — hurt you.
Shawn A. Newton is assistant dean of students at Salem State University, and an adjunct faculty member in its graduate school of social work. He recently served as a panelist for a university symposium moderated by veteran Boston journalist R. D. Sahl on taking action against intimidation.