Tracy Smith: What I learned about bullying

A reporter's firsthand account of what it's like on the bullying front lines

By CBS News correspondent Tracy Smith

It's a haunting question: What would make perfectly healthy teenagers want to harm themselves, or even take their own life? For hundreds of parents, the answer is bullying, which in today's world can be more vicious and relentless than ever. In 2011, the schoolyard bully doesn't have to stop when the school day ends. She or he can just send a vicious cell phone text, post a humiliating taunt, or email a degrading message and have access to victims at any time or place.

For the last year, I've been working with a team of CBS News "48 Hours" producers on a special primetime report about bullying in the digital age. It's called "Bullying: Words Can Kill." It's an in-depth look at how this serious issue is affecting hundreds of thousands of students across the country -- and what parents, educators and legislators can do to help keep children safe.

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I started my career at a news program that was watched by teenagers, so I've spent a lot of time reporting in middle and high schools. I knew bullying has always been an issue. But I was stunned by how nasty it's become. Cyberbullying has turned up the heat on peer-to-peer harassment by allowing children to bully each other 24/7. Computers and cell phones now bring children and teens closer to their friends as well as their enemies, sometimes with fatal results.

The things kids say to each other online just floored me. Words designed to cut like knives "you're gay, you're fat, you should kill yourself!?" This is middle school! But the internet makes you bolder. You say things you might never say to someone's face. As a parent you want to say, 'well, just turn it off!' But the middle school girls we talked to said they feel compelled to see what people are writing about them. They just can't turn it off. And its nonstop.

Video: Watch now Video: Students share experiences with bullying and cyberbullying

Study after study has shown that bullying can have long lasting effects on a child's health and wellbeing. The impact on a bullied child's health is significant and can persist into adulthood. Victims can experience depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, loneliness, and increased thoughts of suicide. Approximately 160,000 children a year stay home from school out of fear, often negatively impacting their grades and ability to attend the college of their choice. And their oppressors should take note that a bully's well-being is affected as well. Bullies are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, get into physical fights, abuse their spouses and have criminal convictions as adults. Regardless of role, victim or bully, health can suffer for a long period of time and possibly a lifetime.

Producers Deborah Grau, Judy Rybak and I spent six months documenting life at Birchwood Middle School in Rhode Island, which is actively developing policies to stop all forms of bullying. It's all thanks to 14-year-old Johnny: an aspiring designer who likes to sew, is an avid Lady Gaga fan, and a favorite target of the bullies. His mother, Lisa, has watched his naturally sunny personality dim from the constant bullying he has experienced since he was 10-years-old. Aware of the problem, Lisa changed schools two times. Then they found Birchwood, the first school to listen and act. But even with the school's support, while we were documenting his story, Johnny attempted to take his own life. Years of psychic scarring had left him feeling helpless and hopeless, even though he was finally getting the help he needed. Now he wants other children to know that suicide is not the answer, and insists that parents and schools should listen and act quickly. Birchwood School Assistant Principal Tonianne Moniz agrees and says it's everyone's responsibility. "You can't have a student achieve when they're going through something like this."

The heartbreaking story of Jessica Logan underscores that sentiment. 18-year-old Jessie reportedly texted a nude photo of herself to a boyfriend. Soon after, the photo went public. Jessie wasn't sure who shared it -- that boy she sent it to or several girlfriends at another high school, who may have stolen it from her phone. The resource officer at Jessie's high school said in a legal deposition that three girls admitted to taking the photo from Jessie's phone as a joke. Whoever sent the photo, it went viral through four local high schools and Jessie was tormented. Her bullies were relentless, using the internet and cell phones to push her to the edge. On July 3, 2008, Jessie's mother, Cynthia, found her daughter hanging in her closet. Cynthia is now using her grief to make sure other teens don't suffer the same fate. She is working with legislators in her home state of Ohio to help pass the Jessica Logan Act, which seeks to protect children who are being cyberbullied.

Video: A mother's story

And sadly, as I'm sure you're aware, Cynthia's not the only parent who'd lost a child to "bullycide." We talked with a whole group of moms and dads whose children took their own lives after being bullied. I cried my way through those interviews. As a mom of two young children, I can only imagine the pain of knowing your child was so tortured by other kids, by people he or she thought were *friends*, that they saw no other way out. I'm so very grateful to these parents for sharing their stories, and hopeful that, thanks to their efforts, the bullying problem might not be so severe by the time my kids reach their teens.

We sincerely hope the broadcast inspires ongoing discussions in homes and schools around the country about what can be done to protect America's children from the devastating effects of bullying.

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