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I have a serious soft spot in my heart for Florida sheriff Grady Judd. Why? Because he is looking a prevalent issue in the eye and doing something about it.
Bullying is not OK. There is no scenario by which it is acceptable to mock or taunt or tease someone else, no matter what their age. Bullying is not a pediatric problem, but its most devastating consequences can be seen among kids.
It used to be that bullying was largely a school-yard phenomenon. But wherever it happened—doesn't matter if it was outside of a classroom or inside of an office—it happened some where. It occurred in a place, and the object of that bullying could eventually get away and take a break. The day ended. The weekend arrived. There was a pause in the torture.
Today bullying goes on 24/7, thanks largely to social media and our overwhelming need to connect. I once heard a speaker liken our "addiction" to checking email to playing the slots in a casino. When you put your money into a slot machine, every brain cell in your head knows that in all likelihood you will lose, but you play anyhow because there is a tiny chance you might win. When we check email, the vast majority of messages are neutral or junk mail or even negative, but we keep checking incessantly, hoping for that one positive affirmation. That mini-jackpot. That win.
Bullying exists across a myriad of platforms—email, text, social media—and yet we stay connected. Kids stay connected, too. More connected, actually. And there is no escape from the barrage of meanness and hate once it starts, which these days is increasingly young.
Kids beg for access to one another. Middle schoolers plead not just for phones but for smart phones, and parents rationalize this gift a hundred different ways. Really, why would a middle schooler need a smart phone? Is there any emergency situation you can imagine your child landing in that requires Angry Birds or Facebook to get out of?
Tween brains are profoundly immature—their pre-frontal cortex that will one day help weigh consequences is years away from maturity. They cannot be counted upon to make good long-term decisions, not even the model citizens among them. When parents ask me if they should get their middle schooler a smart phone, I answer that they should simultaneously buy a plane ticket for spring break in Fort Lauderdale, because if you are going to throw them into a situation that they are nowhere near ready for, why not commit to that strategy fully?
Parents tell me that they have rules for how their kids use social media and they check that their kids are following these rules regularly. Really? I don't believe you, parents. Because your 12-year-olds who are on Instagram (and who approach me after I give talks on the topic of "why you should never post pictures of yourself in bikinis" and ask me to follow them), post pictures of themselves in bikinis ALL THE TIME. And so do all of their friends. And when I ask you parents about it, you deny it or you say she's not doing that anymore. So either you don't know what your kid is up to online or you choose to ignore it. I don't know which is worse.
Here's the part parents really don't want to hear: Some of you are parents of bullies. A lot of you, in fact. I know so because this whole bullying epidemic exists in every state across the country and in every city across each state. There are a lot of bullies out there. And unless you are modeling this behavior because you yourself are a bully, then bully-children either have parents who don't know what they are doing online or they have parents who are choosing to ignore it.
That's why I have great affection for Grady Judd. Because he's not just calling out the bullies who drove a 12-year-old girl to commit suicide, he's calling out their parents as well.
Our generation of parents is way too involved in our kids' lives. But ironically, while we are so busy doing their homework and overscheduling their after-school activities, we are often missing from the one place we need to be most: supervising their social lives. Without us watching and intervening, there is no one to teach our children how to treat others. The consequences of this can be devastating.