Adults, including politicians and commentators, need to look at their own behavior before lecturing kids about bullying. 

By Larry Magid

I’ve been thinking a lot about cyberbullying lately and wondering how we can persuade our young people to treat each other and themselves with more respect. There’s no excuse for using a computer, a cell phone or anything else to demean, insult, embarrass or harass another person. Bullying, whether online or in person, is reprehensible.

We need to marginalize bullies, whether they’re on a schoolyard, on the Internet or on cable TV. We need to teach young people that bullying is neither acceptable nor normal. Every one of us has to start modeling how we want our children to behave. They learn not from how we tell them to act but how we act in their presence.

Unfortunately, there are some bad role models on the public stage.

The rhetoric both before and after the House of Representatives vote on health care is a case in point. While I don’t support their cause, I admire the fact that some health care opponents and conservative activists rally to express their opposition to policies they don’t like. That’s not only their right but an American tradition worth celebrating.

But is it helpful for radio and TV personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to demonize or ridicule those they disagree with? For example, in 2006 Limbaugh made fun of actor Michael J. Fox’s battle with Parkinson’s disease. Limbaugh mimicked Fox’s shaking and claimed that Fox exaggerates the effects of his disease “It’s purely an act,” he said.  Beck in a recent broadcast referred to several Obama administration officials as Marxists, communists, socialists and Maoists.

Name-calling and publicly questioning someone’s patriotism is bullying and hardly a good example for our youth. And it’s not just the political right that’s guilty of this. I was not pleased with the title of (now) Sen. Al Franken’s 1996 book, “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.” Franken was a pundit, not a senator, when he wrote it, but he and his publishers could have come up with a title that didn’t make fun of Limbaugh’s weight.

I don’t know for sure what effect such rude behavior by public figures has on youth, but it correlates with an apparent rise in mean behavior among teens in America.

Depending on what study you read, fifteen percent to 30 percent of teens say they have been cyberbullied. And lately, there have been some tragic cases. One can never know for sure what role bullying plays in a person’s decision to take her own life, but Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old soccer player from Long Island, committed suicide last month after being taunted on FormSpringMe.com with cruel comments that continued even after her death.

It’s important to avoid jumping to the conclusion that a suicide was “caused” by any single event or series of events, including bullying or cyberbullying. Still, bullying is a terrible thing to endure and there’s no question that it can cause depression and play a role in self-destructive behavior.

There is also the recent case of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts teen who hanged herself earlier this year after enduring threats and verbal abuse, mostly in person but also online and through text messages. Last week, it was announced that nine of her classmates will face criminal charges, including statutory rape, violation of civil rights resulting in bodily injury, criminal harassment and stalking. Prosecuting teens may be the only weapon the local district attorney has to deal with this problem, but we also need to find ways to prevent it.

And then there is the Philadelphia story. After receiving messages on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other online sites, thousands of young people have been gathering on street corners in the “city of brotherly love” in what is commonly called a “flash mob.” But unlike most flash mobs, which are typically fun and positive, these youths have been creating mobs in the ugliest sense of the word — fighting, screaming racial epithets, disrupting businesses and generally behaving like hooligans

We need to remind ourselves and our children that this kind of behavior is not only wrong, but it’s abnormal and weird. Plenty of research shows that people are influenced by “social norms,” how they think others behave. If people know that their neighbors don’t smoke, they’re less likely to smoke. The same is true with bullying.

In other words, most people are nice and they’re the ones we need to emulate. It’s time to tune out the loudmouth boors who demonstrate their own inadequacy by picking on others.