Bullying and Journalistic Willful Blindness

October 30, 2015

I read with great interest an October 29th, 2013 article written in the Globe and Mail by author Margaret Wente called, “Are Bullying Laws even Helping?” which can be located here:

Although I agree with the writer’s premise that laws will not stop bullying, they are a needed consequence in those cases where bullying, or what I like to call “digital peer aggression,” has caused a significant emotional, psychological, and/or physical hurt to another person. I also agree that several provinces have “rushed into the breach” and have created provincial legislation to deal with bullying that, I believe, will not survive a Supreme Court of Canada challenge. I do, however, applaud the federal government, and Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who are taking a more timely and measured response to this issue, and they are consulting with experts in the drafting of their new Criminal Code amendments that they will be introducing this fall.

The issue I have with Wente’s article is when she writes, “And there is no scientific evidence that bullying causes teenagers to kill themselves.The roots of adolescent suicide are complex, but if there’s one common denominator, it isn’t bullying – it’s mental illness.” To help support this quote, Wente’s points to an article written by Poynter Institute media critic, Kelly McBride, that can be located here:

What Wente probably did not know, is that McBride’s statement, “there is no scientific evidence that bullying causes suicide,” was heavily criticized. As an example, here are some scientific, medical, and psychiatric “peer-reviewed” research papers that show a correlation between bullying and suicidal ideation, behaviour, and actions:

To report that there is no scientific evidence that bullying causes suicide is to be willfully blind to the fact that there is, as can be read in the above noted peer reviewed research.

There is no doubt that those who completed the act of suicide were in a mental health crisis (a common factor), but there is no doubt that some forms of bullying can and do cause mental health crises, depression, and suicidal ideations, actions, and behaviors. The question that psychiatric/psychological experts are trying to answer is, “Why do the vast majority of youth who are targeted not take their lives, when a very small cohort does.” The research is showing us that the answer to this question is complex, multi-factorial, and not yet fully understood.

Again, I do agree with several comments in Wente’s article with some caveats:

  • New laws will not stop suicide. Agree, but there do need to be federal laws in place to effectively deal with and punish those who move from rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour to actual peer aggression after the fact.
  • Some provinces have rushed into the breach to create laws to deal with bullying. Agreed, several that I think will not survive a Supreme Court of Canada challenge. I do, however, believe that Justice Minister MacKay is taking a more cautious and timely review by consulting with experts in the field to create Criminal Code amendments that will be introduced this fall that I believe will survive a Supreme Court challenge.
  • About 1/4 of Canadian students experience some form of bullying. Agreed.
  • Some anti-bullying programs do more harm than good. Agreed, especially those that are not based upon peer-reviewed research.
  • Dealing with conflict, aggression, embarrassment, negative relationships, and rejection is a crucial part of growing up. Agreed, as long as it is developmentally normative behaviour that is considered to be rude, mean, or disturbing in nature. Once it flows into actual peer aggression, it now crosses the line into often criminal behaviour.

Specific to Wente’s comments, “And there is no scientific evidence that bullying causes teenagers to kill themselves,” I must respectfully disagree given that the medical, scientific, and psychiatric community have reported otherwise. As one expert stated specific to this issue:

“There’s a good point to be made that journalists should default to viewing and describing suicide as a mental illness with a variety of causes, many subtle or indiscernible, but the claim that bullying is wholly irrelevant to suicide and is no cause for concern, well, contributes to a misinformed society, which robs communities of the ability to bring about meaningful change.”


Darren Laur

AKA “The White Hatter”


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