Is there really a bullying epidemic?

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie, writing in The Wall Street Journal, is skeptical:

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.

I have no interest in defending the bullies who dominate sandboxes, extort lunch money and use Twitter to taunt their classmates. But there is no growing crisis. Childhood and adolescence in America have never been less brutal. Even as the country’s overprotective parents whip themselves up into a moral panic about kid-on-kid cruelty, the numbers don’t point to any explosion of abuse. As for the rising wave of laws and regulations designed to combat meanness among students, they are likely to lump together minor slights with major offenses. The antibullying movement is already conflating serious cases of gay-bashing and vicious harassment with things like…a kid named Cheese having a tough time in grade school.

How did we get here? We live in an age of helicopter parents so pushy and overbearing that Colorado Springs banned its annual Easter-egg hunt on account of adults jumping the starter’s gun and scooping up treat-filled plastic eggs on behalf of their winsome kids. The Department of Education in New York City—once known as the town too tough for Al Capone—is seeking to ban such words as “dinosaurs,” “Halloween” and “dancing” from citywide tests on the grounds that they could “evoke unpleasant emotions in the students,” it was reported this week. (Leave aside for the moment that perhaps the whole point of tests is to “evoke unpleasant emotions.”)

[...]

But is bullying—which the stopbullying.gov website of the Department of Health and Human Services defines as “teasing,” “name-calling,” “taunting,” “leaving someone out on purpose,” “telling other children not to be friends with someone,” “spreading rumors about someone,” “hitting/kicking/pinching,” “spitting” and “making mean or rude hand gestures”—really a growing problem in America?

Despite the rare and tragic cases that rightly command our attention and outrage, the data show that things are, in fact, getting better for kids. When it comes to school violence, the numbers are particularly encouraging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of students who reported “being afraid of attack or harm at school” declined to 4% from 12%. Over the same period, the victimization rate per 1,000 students declined fivefold.

When it comes to bullying numbers, long-term trends are less clear. The makers of “Bully” say that “over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year,” and estimates of the percentage of students who are bullied in a given year range from 20% to 70%. NCES changed the way it tabulated bullying incidents in 2005 and cautions against using earlier data. Its biennial reports find that 28% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied in 2005; that percentage rose to 32% in 2007, before dropping back to 28% in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available). Such numbers strongly suggest that there is no epidemic afoot (though one wonders if the new anti-bullying laws and media campaigns might lead to more reports going forward).

After my horrible experiences in high school, I should be right on board with the anti-bullying movement, but I find something deeply off-putting about it.  Maybe it’s the sight of so many of the people who made my junior-high life a living hell preaching about it on Facebook.

Or, it could be the fact that legislators across North America are further trying to limit our personal freedoms.  For the children, you know:

In their never-ending quest to make Connecticut a less annoying place, state legislators — apparently having solved unemployment, crime and school funding — have trained their sights on annoying speech.

bill introduced March 22 by the Senate Judiciary Committee — which is up for a hearing in that committee Thursday — would create the new misdemeanor criminal offense of “Electronic Harassment.” (Note to Dave Barry: “Electronic Harassment” would be an exceptional name for a band.)

A person would be guilty of the crime of “Electronic Harassment” under the following conditions: (1) Transmitting information over any electronic medium (anything from radio to the Web to texting), (2) that is based on a person’s “actual or perceived traits or characteristics,” (3) that causes a person “substantial embarrassment or humiliation within an academic or professional community,” and (4) is done with an intent to “annoy” or “alarm” the person.

Read that carefully, and think about how much First Amendment real estate it covers.

For example … how about this Al Franken column, [actually a Joe Conason column, about Franken's controversial election to the Senate - DJP] “Rush Limbaugh is still a big fat idiot.” Transmitted electronically? Check. Based on traits or characteristics? Argue amongst yourselves whether they are “actual” or “perceived.” Causing substantial humiliation? If it is possible for Rush Limbaugh to feel humiliation, definitely. Done with an intent to annoy? Oh, at the very least.

Stay clear of Connecticut, Senator Franken — or bring your checkbook, since SB 456 carries up to a $2,000 fine, with the possibility of a year in jail.

For being annoying.

Via the great Ken at Popehat, whose posts about “cyberbullying” legislation are not to be missed.

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About Damian P.

Lawyer with Bedford Law, Bedford, Nova Scotia.
This entry was posted in Constitutional Law, Constitutional Law (USA), Criminal Law, Freedom of Expression, Internet, Nanny State. Bookmark the permalink.

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