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The Bullying Epidemic and How We Can End it

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Bullying is rampant in America and Canada. Thousands of kids are picked on, insulted, beat up and called derogatory names each day for anything perceived as being "different." Reports estimate that 160,000 students stay home from school every day for fear of being bullied. Bullied victims are between two and nine times more likely to consider suicide, over 14 per cent of high school students have considered suicide, seven per cent have attempted it and 4,400 take their own lives in the U.S. alone each year. And lesbian and gay teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other bullied teens. The numbers are staggering. What is happening to our youth and what can we do to foster love and acceptance and eradicate intolerance and bullying?

If you're a parent, teacher or friend, you can watch for signs that indicate a child is being bullied: depression, changes in sleeping or eating habits, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, social withdrawal or negative self-talk such as "I wish I were dead." Be vigilant. Inquire. Let them know you care. Encourage them to tell adults. And of course, intervene when you see or hear any behavior that belittles another. However you don't have to be a parent, or hold a position of leadership such as a teacher, to intervene. Anyone can step up and stop it.

I think one element of bullying that we don't talk enough about is the need for parents of teens who do the bullying to step up. After some recent suicides, I have even heard stories of the bullies posting comments and even showing up at funerals to say how glad they are about the suicide. Where are the parents of these kids? We tend to think of bullying as physical acts, but much of bullying today is more subtle and carried out through social media, increasingly with girls as much as boys. Parents need to look for ANY sign of lack of tolerance in their own children -- we need to step up and check it, deal with it, even if it seems harmless, because it is NOT harmless. When I was a teen, I bullied a kid once and when my mother caught wind of it she read me the "riot" act. It never happened again.

The Responsibility Ripple: Two Canadian Teens Who Made a Difference

People want to end bullying, but they feel the issue is too overwhelming and widespread for one person to make a difference. In my latest book, Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything, I explain that one reason we feel disempowered is we forget to factor in the power of "aggregate influence." That is, we look at our own small actions as one person, seeing them as insignificant in the big scheme of things. The paradox is that while real change is often dependent on many people taking action, aggregate influence requires each individual to act. When you step up, others are more likely to take initiative. I call this the responsibility ripple.

A classic example of this is the Pink Shirt story. Students David Shepherd and Travis Price did not hold positions of leadership, but in September 2007 they did decide to lead. It was the first day of school at Central Kings Rural High School in Nova Scotia, Canada when a ninth grader arrived wearing a pink polo shirt. He was bullied mercilessly by a group of 12th graders who called him a fag and told him if he ever wore a pink shirt again he'd pay for it. When two seniors, David and Travis, got wind of what happened, they had an idea. They purchased 50 pink shirts and tank-tops and sent out emails and a Facebook post inviting as many kids as possible to wear them to school. Not only did they easily distribute the shirts, but hundreds of students showed up dressed in pink from head to toe! One of the bullies saw the sea of pink and threw a trash can in protest, but as David would say later, not a peep was heard from the bullies after that day. The story was picked up by the national media across Canada and later overseas as well. Today there are schools around the world that hold annual pink shirt days across Canada and elsewhere, all because two Canadian twelfth graders decided to step up and lead.

Step Up --Take a Stand -- Make a Pledge

Being pro-active is the best way to stop bullying. Make a personal commitment and get involved. There are lots of organizations committed to eradicating bullying.

The Great American NO BULL Challenge is a student-led video contest and teen video awards show that brings awareness to the issue of cyberbulling in America. The goal is to join students, educators, counsellors, organizations, and corporations together in an effort to enable change at the student level. Check out their website: www.nobull.votigo.com for campaign details. Maybe we need a similar Canadian effort -- anyone willing to step up?

Another great organization is The Trevor Project -- the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. The Trevor Project offers educational programs and has a crisis support line.

Edmund Burke once said, "All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." The converse is also true, all that is required to change things is for more of us-parents, teens and bystanders to step up, speak up, and let our voices be heard.

Dr. John Izzo is the author of five best selling books including Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything and The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die. He has spoken to over one million people at conferences and corporate events.