October 5th, 2010
12:16 PM ET

Dr. Phil: Bullied to death

Dr. Phil McGraw
Special to CNN

If you think cyberbullying isn’t really that big of a deal, or just kids being kids, let me throw a few facts at you: More than 40 percent of kids in this country say they’ve been bullied on the internet, and 35 percent say they have received online threats. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying victims are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to those who have not endured such bullying. Since 2003, at least a dozen young people between the ages of 11 and 18 have killed themselves after some form of cyberbullying.

The Dr. Phil show has been inundated with letters and calls from kids desperate to escape these keyboard bullies - omnipresent, electronic stalkers who go after them day and night, destroy their reputations, if not their lives, and then log off their computers and disappear. For every sickening cyberbully incident you read about — such as the suicide of Rutgers University college student Tyler Clementi, after he learned a roommate had allegedly videotaped his sexual encounter with another young man and streamed it live online — there are at least a half dozen more that never make headlines.

It’s flabbergasting. When I was young, bullies intimidated with their physical size and words. Now, they have Facebook, MySpace, e-mail, texting, message boards, comment fields, blocked calls, instant messaging and chat rooms. And what these keyboard cowards can accomplish with those weapons is exponentially greater than what the old-school bully was once able to do on a playground or in the school cafeteria.

Under the cloak of anonymity, a cyber bully can wage an emotional and psychological war with a few keystrokes — disclosing personal photos, sending group e-mails with the intent of humiliating an individual, sending threatening e-mails, posting embarrassing or mean messages for others to comment on or share. By using false identities, a cyber bully also can make his victim feel that legions of other kids despise him or her.

In a matter of seconds, a cyber bully can completely destroy a fragile adolescent’s reputation. And what makes it worse for the victims is that there is absolutely no place for them to hide. In my day, you could at least get away from your attacker by retreating to the safety of your own home. Not anymore. Parents, think about it: Your child may be sitting at home, doing homework, reading, relaxing or watching television – just being a kid, and suddenly and relentlessly, he or she may start receiving taunting e-mails: “You’re ugly.” “No one likes you.” “We are going to beat you up tomorrow.” “We all wish you would just die.” “No one wants you here, so why don’t you just kill yourself?” Cyber bullies strike at any time, and they follow their targets everywhere — not only into their homes, but from school to school, even across the country.

And a cyber message spreads like wild fire. By word of mouth alone, a rumor might reach 20 people. An online posting has the ability to reach millions — even if it doesn’t, to the victim, it will feel like the entire world has seen it. Unlike the old days, when whatever was written on the wall could be erased or painted over, it is impossible to un-ring the “cyber-bell.”

Later this week, I will be joining Anderson Cooper on AC360 and again Friday for “Bullying: No Escape,” an AC360° Special Report with PEOPLE Magazine and Cartoon Network, to address the impact bullying is having on young people in America. I’m sure there are many parents who still don’t fully understand its reach and how it may already be affecting their children. Too many victims suffer in silence because of the shame and embarrassment they feel. Others may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some decompensate and lose touch with reality. Their grades drop because they are afraid to go to school. Their friends disappear. They become even more humiliated — and yes, more isolated — as the harassment continues for weeks, months and even years. Too many of these children become so distraught that they turn to desperate measures and do the unthinkable.

Bullies, be on notice. We’re using AC360, Friday’s “Bullying: No Escape,” Special Report and the Dr. Phil show
as platforms to spur a national movement to fight back against this growing, insidious epidemic. On Wednesday, October 6, the Dr. Phil show is bringing in a panel of experts to examine this disturbing trend, shining a spotlight on recent headlines to raise awareness, and taking a closer look at the laws currently in effect to hold bullies accountable. And then, we’re following it up with another show on Thursday to kick off our Anti-Bullying Movement.

It’s time to get to work. The lightning speed at which technology is advancing demands our immediate response. Our schools and parents need to start discussing the potential dangers of the internet and the impact of cyberbullying with their kids; teach them a responsible way to use the internet and make them understand that harassing someone online is just as destructive as tormenting them in person. We need to add language to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to give schools more power to crack down on cyberbullying, and provide counseling to not only its victims, but its offenders as well. It’s time to have serious discussions about what additional laws need to be written. For instance, if a victim of cyberbullying commits suicide; to what degree should the bully be held accountable for that death?

More than anything, it’s time for parents to know the warning signs and get more involved in their children’s online activities. Know what they’re doing on their computers, including the sites they visit, the social networks they belong to, and who they’re socializing or “chatting” with. Monitor their activity. Don’t let your kids tell you it’s an invasion of privacy. As a parent, you need to know.

And your kids need to know that posting information that may seem funny or like harmless gossip, or even retaliation to someone who’s crossed them, could destroy someone’s feelings or permanently damage their reputation. Make sure your children aren’t tempted to cross the line and become, even ever so briefly, internet bullies themselves. And if you suspect they are being bullies, don’t look the other way. Take initiative. Talk to them about why it’s wrong. As we must remember, just one malicious rumor can result in unimaginably deep emotional scars that can last a lifetime.

For those who may still be taking this lightly or thinking that cyberbullying can’t be all that big of a problem: Take a look at the faces of the children who have been bullied, and think about the moment young Tyler Clementi stood on the George Washington Bridge before he jumped, alone and devastated, his heart broken. It’s time to get involved.

Filed under: 360° Radar • 360º Follow • Bullying • Dr. Phil • Opinion
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Paula

    The last few years, I've found Adina's Deck is the best solution out there for cyber bullying... it's a show that prevents this behavior starting in 4th or 5th grade. Well, I guess "prevents" is a strong word, but it helps them understand these issues early on... like drug education. It's so important that kids see Adina's Deck!!

    October 13, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  2. Cathy

    Bingo @ Steve "Unlike face to face on the playground, or in a hallway at school, the victim totally controls the situation by using that oft forgotten device, the off switch you don't have to read it"
    That said, sometimes people one knows in real life can get hold of some touchy info or photos and share it with the world which can be extremely devastating, but it still doesn't compare to face to face cruelty on a day to day basis–which is done by spineless people who would never ever ever bully solo

    October 12, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  3. Mike Bogdanski

    Thank you for bringing this to the nation. I was a victim of bullying and still remember the shame and depression I suffered over 40 years ago.
    The physical pain is gone but the emotional pain is still here. Martial arts rebuilt my confidence and saved my life. Today I strive to be the "ANTI Bully" to kids around the country and let them know they can turn from hate to hope.

    October 11, 2010 at 7:48 pm |
  4. Darlene

    My son is 13 and has been bullied for years now these bulliies have followed him to middle school and this past year has been very bad for him.I have been fighting with the school for years now and they have done nothing no return calls back.These few bullies have the whole school calling my son a fag,stupid,ugly you name it.He tried to go back this year 4 hour days per his theropist and only made it 3 days with all three days being bullied.He is now on medication for depression, anxiety,Low self esteem he is begging me to home school him he just can't do it anymore not only have these kids bullied him at school they have others around the neighborhood who don't even know my son calling him these names so he pretty much stays home with me.I really need help in what to do.This year they switched principles in his school and he said he will put a stop to it but my son has to go through it again in order for him to stop it.I feel i will lose my son if i make him go through it again.

    October 10, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  5. Simon Polhamus

    This is weak. Weak. WEAK.

    You know, I don't know what its like to be 'cyber bullied'

    However, I can attribute my first 5 nose breaks to REAL bullying. I can attribute bouts of *REAL* depression, suicidal ideation etc.

    Of course, so can a great many of my friends – and guess what we didn't kills ourselves. Why because our parents took to the proper steps. Now mind you when i say this i am NOT referring to trying to press criminal charges on other children. Why? because first of all that will never work. Kids are going to be Kids and there is NOTHING crueler than a child. Say what you will but without reference of experiance they will act as they please. Why do i rant like – because the truth of the matter is if kids are killing themselves its NOT because they were bullied. That might be part of it, but to let let the reactionists of this country dictate their regrets about failure to act for their child's wellbeing as legislation for the other children of this nation – well the only result will be MORE suicides, firstly from the normal kids who are no in 'the system' and secondly from other 'cyber bullied' kids who still aren't recieving the pyschological aid and/or removal from internet social networking that they actually need.

    If your a parent whose child is at risk get them help, get yourself help, dont wait till its to late then start point the finger everywhere but where it belongs.

    October 8, 2010 at 5:09 am |
  6. vickie reinkemeyer

    i just want to say how bad this is about how kids are so horrible to get a facebook just to tell someone to kill themselves. this makes me feel bad for all the kids. my son is not on facebook,he is downsyndrome and it hurts just to hear people making fun of him. i taught my kids better. even the parets stood there and let them make fun of my son. i feel bad and it hurts to se these kids get hurt just because people think they should hurt someone else.

    October 7, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  7. Abby

    Kids remember that those who are being a bully are often suffering from problems at home such as lack of attention, or guidance. There may be a genetic reason for their behavior. They are very scared their shortcomings will be discovered, and they will do anything to put the spotlight on someone else. As you witness a bully next time, keep in mind that the more they are hateful and rude, the bigger the complex and personal problems that bully has. They will likely carry these problems throughout their life. Just try to stay clear of them and their problems.

    October 7, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  8. lyn

    I think if authorities can't go after the kids if they're minors, go after the parents. Make them accountable, penalize or fine them, anything that will make the parents of these bullies pause from their " busy and important" life and realize that their darling little miss and mr. perfect are not so perfect at all and that they should do something about it. Bringing up a decent person in this sometimes twisted society is all about good parenting.

    October 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  9. lynda

    The charges against the cyber-bullying are warranted absolutely. More accountabilty for any wrong doing has got to be enforced. Everyone has rights these days but no consequences for their behaviour. As we see, people are losing their lives and the bullies are winning. If there are no consequences for this behaviour, it will never be squelched and will send the wrong message and it will continue.

    October 7, 2010 at 1:54 am |
  10. Kelly

    How can anyone expect kids to stop bullying, when they are surrounded by adults who bully? Just look at the heinous bullying of President Obama by members of congress (mostly republican), John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, all of them, as well as Palin, Rove, Steele, Limbaugh, BECK, Fox News – all fabricating and spreading lies about him, calling him awful names, comparing him to Hitler, Dick Army and the Koch brothers funding tea party rallies filled with hatred based on lies, bigotry, and propaganda – – now that's bullying to the n-th degree.

    October 7, 2010 at 12:32 am |
  11. George

    Quit calling it bullying it's a crime to hit or push anyone

    October 6, 2010 at 10:26 pm |
  12. Beth

    I'm thrilled that something is going to be done with our kids. My daughter was bullied in middle school. Kids were throwing her food on the cafeteria floor,they wouldn't let her get into her locker all day, name calling. She's very obese. I dedided to take manners in my own hands and pull her out of school and home school. Our school system was very concerned and had a teacher come to my house twice a week. We need to make a new law and make these parents aconable for their kids. Make it mandatory/required credit that we teach our children from pre-school-12 human companion. Our middle school principle started a progam called "Character Education Program".

    October 6, 2010 at 10:17 pm |
  13. marie

    It is time we got involved, starting with the case of the assistant attorney general that is accused of cyber bullying. It is outrageous that a public employee can bully over the internet and claim "freedom of speech".

    October 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  14. Benny Walker

    when i was in middle school i was bullied all the time. then you had to fight. sometimes every day. There comes a time in all of us where you have to become strong. i am now 6'1 and 210 lbs. i am straight man. but, i have learned to help weaker people that get picked on. I feel all have has had this happen to us. Even the bullies have had it done to them. if not from others but from the parents. Most bullies i feel have been treated bad by someone in there family and they look for others to release this hate... Each one of us has to stand up for ourselves.

    October 6, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  15. jenny

    Great article and I will be watching Friday. I had it rough it highschool but at least I could get away from it. Kids today cannot.

    October 6, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
  16. Herman Traylor

    Bullying was been going on since the beginning of time. There are many different types of bullying. Jesus Christ himself was even BULLIED by the ROMANS & Pontius Pilate. So where do you draw the line is the real question?

    Herman Traylor

    Stamford, CT

    October 6, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  17. K.Holbrook

    I was bullied all through elementary school, I was petrified everyday. Thirty five years later it still upsets me, the trauma NEVER goes away.

    I would like to see the kids that bullied me because I would let them know that what they did effected me throughout my whole life.

    October 5, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
  18. Chelle

    I feel that rampid cases of bullying we are seeing is a direct result of parents not being involved in their child's life the way we used to. Dual income or single parent housholds have a hard time staying connected to their children, especially in these economic times.

    I also feel that we as a society have become much more angry & self centered & it's rubbing off on our children. In America we put mor emphasis on living to work than working to live & our family units suffer because of it.
    We choose to have children & must remember we have to be apart of their lives to protect them.

    October 5, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  19. Steve

    Unlike face to face on the playground, or in a hallway at school, the victim totally controls the situation by using that oft forgotten device, the off switch you don't have to read it.

    October 5, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  20. David

    I'm teaching this story in a lesson on the "value of life" and I wonder–can bullying be treated as the crime of attempted murder, since the (intended) result of the bully, whether they'll admit it or not, will be the possible death of a child by suicide?

    October 5, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  21. Kent VerPlanck

    Bullying is nothing like it was when I went to high school. Not that I was ever a target (I'm 6'10" and weigh in at 285). Slightly more weight than in high school, but bullying had no technology component (unless you count the use of random items laying around, like pieces of wood, rocks and whatever).

    Cyber-bullying is one of the cruelest components introduced to the lives of young people and is truly an evidence of the cowardice of the perpetrators.

    I am an ardent supporter of the Anti-Bullying Movement and my heart goes out to the family of Tyler Clementi ad all who have been on the receiving side of this cowardly and heartless act.

    October 5, 2010 at 12:30 pm |