My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric

We all know that teen bullying – both online and offline – has devastating consequences. Jamey Rodemeyer’s suicide is a tragedy. He was tormented for being gay. He knew he was being bullied and he regularly talked about the fact that he was being bullied. Online, he even wrote: “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” The fact that he could admit that he was being tormented coupled with the fact that he asked for help and folks didn’t help him should be a big wake-up call. We have a problem. And that problem is that most of us adults don’t have the foggiest clue how to help youth address bullying.

It doesn’t take a tragedy to know that we need to find a way to combat bullying. Countless regulators and educators are desperate to do something – anything – to put an end to the victimization. But in their desperation to find a solution, they often turn a blind’s eye to both research and the voices of youth.

The canonical research definition of bullying was written by Olweus and it has three components:

  • Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
  • Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
  • Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

What Rodemeyer faced was clearly bullying, but a lot of the reciprocal relational aggression that teens experience online is not actually bullying. Still, in the public eye, these concepts are blurred and so when parents and teachers and regulators talk about wanting to stop bullying, they talk about wanting to stop all forms of relational aggression too. The problem is that many teens do not – and, for good reasons, cannot – identify a lot of what they experience as bullying. Thus, all of the new fangled programs to stop bullying are often missing the mark entirely. In a new paper that Alice Marwick and I co-authored – called “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics” – we analyzed the language of youth and realized that their use the language of “drama” serves many purposes, not the least of which is to distance themselves from the perpetrator / victim rhetoric of bullying in order to save face and maintain agency.

For most teenagers, the language of bullying does not resonate. When teachers come in and give anti-bullying messages, it has little effect on most teens. Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive. They aren’t willing to go there. And when they are, they need support immediately. Yet, few teens have the support structures necessary to make their lives better. Rodemeyer is a case in point. Few schools have the resources to provide youth with the necessary psychological counseling to work through these issues. But if we want to help youth who are bullied, we need there to be infrastructure to help young people when they are willing to recognize themselves as victimized.

To complicate matters more, although school after school is scrambling to implement anti-bullying programs, no one is assessing the effectiveness of these programs. This is not to say that we don’t need education – we do. But we need the interventions to be tested. And my educated hunch is that we need to be focusing more on positive frames that use the language of youth rather than focusing on the negative.

I want to change the frame of our conversation because we need to change the frame if we’re going to help youth. I’ve spent the last seven years talking to youth about bullying and drama and it nearly killed me when I realized that all of the effort that adults are putting into anti-bullying campaigns are falling on deaf ears and doing little to actually address what youth are experiencing. Even hugely moving narratives like “It Gets Better” aren’t enough when a teen can make a video for other teens and then kill himself because he’s unable to make it better in his own community.

In an effort to ground the bullying conversation, Alice Marwick and I just released a draft of our new paper: “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics.” We also co-authored a New York Times Op-Ed in the hopes of reaching a wider audience: “Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark.” Please read these and send us feedback or criticism. We are in this to help the youth that we spend so much time with and we’re both deeply worried that adult rhetoric is going in the wrong direction and failing to realize why it’s counterproductive.

Image from Flickr by Brandon Christopher Warren


Bullying as True Drama: Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark
by danah boyd and Alice Marwick
Published on September 22, 2011 in the New York Times

The suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, the 14-year-old boy from western New York who killed himself last Sunday after being tormented by his classmates for being gay, is appalling. His story is a classic case of bullying: he was aggressively and repeatedly victimized. Horrific episodes like this have sparked conversations about cyberbullying and created immense pressure on regulators and educators to do something, anything, to make it stop. Yet in the rush to find a solution, adults are failing to recognize how their conversations about bullying are often misaligned with youth narratives. Adults need to start paying attention to the language of youth if they want antibullying interventions to succeed.

Jamey recognized that he was being bullied and asked explicitly for help, but this is not always the case. Many teenagers who are bullied can’t emotionally afford to identify as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see themselves as perpetrators. For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.

In our research over a number of years, we have interviewed and observed teenagers across the United States. Given the public interest in cyberbullying, we asked young people about it, only to be continually rebuffed. Teenagers repeatedly told us that bullying was something that happened only in elementary or middle school. “There’s no bullying at this school” was a regular refrain.

This didn’t mesh with our observations, so we struggled to understand the disconnect. While teenagers denounced bullying, they — especially girls — would describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as “drama.”

At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying forms of bullying, joking around, minor skirmishes between friends, breakups and makeups, and gossip. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama. But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but rather a protective mechanism for them.

Teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something. Repeatedly, teenagers would refer to something as “just stupid drama,” “something girls do,” or “so high school.” We learned that drama can be fun and entertaining; it can be serious or totally ridiculous; it can be a way to get attention or feel validated. But mostly we learned that young people use the term drama because it is empowering.

Dismissing a conflict that’s really hurting their feelings as drama lets teenagers demonstrate that they don’t care about such petty concerns. They can save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as desperate for attention. Or, if they’re the instigators, the word drama lets teenagers feel that they’re participating in something innocuous or even funny, rather than having to admit that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Drama allows them to distance themselves from painful situations.

Adults want to help teenagers recognize the hurt that is taking place, which often means owning up to victimhood. But this can have serious consequences. To recognize oneself as a victim — or perpetrator — requires serious emotional, psychological and social support, an infrastructure unavailable to many teenagers. And when teenagers like Jamey do ask for help, they’re often let down. Not only are many adults ill-equipped to help teenagers do the psychological work necessary, but teenagers’ social position often requires them to continue facing the same social scene day after day.

Like Jamey, there are young people who identify as victims of bullying. But many youths engaged in practices that adults label bullying do not name them as such. Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish.

Antibullying efforts cannot be successful if they make teenagers feel victimized without providing them the support to go from a position of victimization to one of empowerment. When teenagers acknowledge that they’re being bullied, adults need to provide programs similar to those that help victims of abuse. And they must recognize that emotional recovery is a long and difficult process.

But if the goal is to intervene at the moment of victimization, the focus should be to work within teenagers’ cultural frame, encourage empathy and help young people understand when and where drama has serious consequences. Interventions must focus on positive concepts like healthy relationships and digital citizenship rather than starting with the negative framing of bullying. The key is to help young people feel independently strong, confident and capable without first requiring them to see themselves as either an oppressed person or an oppressor.

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25 comments to The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric

  • MickeyG

    While the semantic discussion around “drama” is interesting; I can not support your tolerance/acceptance, call for change of treatment of “Purpetrators” of bullying, however so labelled.
    There should not be any compassion/understanding for those who perpetrate and perpetuate these behaviours whether physical, emotional or simply name calling. All of these are damaging to the victim. Even the unfortunate use of teh word victim is damaging, Bt Im strapped for an alternative.
    Abusers must be punished, not consoled or comforted. none of this “Shake hands and be friends” ignorance that was the tool of my formative schoool years. Tehre must be Education, but also consequences for the actions of those responcible.
    I have been a ‘victim’ of both school, college and workplace bullying. Has this made me the bitter resentful man I am today? Perhaps.
    Don’t let current and future generations be victims. Empower children and young adults to report and act against peer abusers. All my life Iv’e seen Tolerance of bullies, because it is often supposed that the victim is in some way to blame. That culture needs to change.

  • carl miller

    Danah,
    You say that others don’t understand how to deal with bullying, but as I read your article in the NYT, that was what I thought of you as well. As long as we continue to talk about bullying in this way, there will not be a solution, and you certainly won’t be successful in helping teens who are bullied every day in the real world. Bullying is a type of “petty murder,” but you approach it as a way of placing the onus on both sides to understand the situation, and through understanding, you hope to achive a rational outcome. I felt like I was reading a college textbook written by someone who had never been bullied and never really knew anyone else who had been either. You textbook analysis will always be a failure, and I think you mentioned on your blog that you recognize that you were getting nowhere after years of work in this area. I can see why.
    If you want to approach the subject from an academic view, then at least begin by defining your terms, not in some form that fits all the modern psychological jargon, but as it actually takes place in the real world. That is what you’re missing, even though that’s the supposed focus of your article. I didn’t read one thing that might help a student who is being terrorized on a daily basis. Instead you want to see it as a social problem no different than what students call “drama” in the schools. If you can’t make that distinction, you haven’t even begun to understand the nature of bullying or its effect on victims.

  • This is wonderful! It has been obvious to me that critical steps were missing from the effort to curtail bullying, but I could not pinpoint what. My son is 14, a freshman, and I expect the insights you’ve provided already will help me a great deal to help him avoid trouble. THANK YOU!!!

  • Great article! I am looking for people who have been bullied on the internet (teens or adults) to share their stories and understand how the abuse has affected them. Anyone who is interested in talking about a bullying experience confidentially is welcome to contact me at the email above.

  • Bill Tallmadge

    An intervention proposal, however well crafted, is too narrowly focused if it doesn’t include the largest group affected by bullying (the WITNESSES) as well as the victims and perpetrators.

  • Kevin S

    This seems to be an example of a much broader human phenomenon.

    I have trouble coming to terms with the fact that tens of thousands of persons could be killed, at once, willfully, by another human. My brain overloads, and gets stuck in a loop trying to resolve a contradiction that arises between how I thought the world worked, and how the world actually works. I get on with my life by proclaiming, “oh, there’s a category for that: genocide.”

    This is likely the beginnings of language, or an even deeper brain function. Instead of needing to describe, with amazement, this wonderful thing I passed today, that was tall, and brown, and green, and had a shape, and a smell… I can just use the word “tree,” you know what I mean, and we can move past to bigger things.

    In both cases the categorization creates the emotional distance necessary to use more rational brain functions.

  • Interesting rhetorical shift regarding drama. Rosie found that students felt bullied,but not that they were bullies:

    I asked the class if anyone had ever been bullied or ‘picked on’. Many hands were thrust in the air. It was obvious that there were people here who had stories to tell. I asked the most eager students if they would describe their experiences. What had happened? How did it make them feel? Did anyone help them? I was surprised at the number of children who felt they had at one time or another been bullied. Everyone seemed to understand the word. No-one asked what I meant by ‘bullying’. Throughout it all, Anika remained silent.
    I then went on to ask the question “Are any of you bullies?” No hands went up. I had a class of victims and no perpetrators. “How strange” I said. “Research shows that some people who are bullies have been bullied themselves.”

  • When I use to sub, I would often encounter bullying in the classrooms (although I may be confusing that with the reciprocal relational aggression you refer to). In my head, I knew what meaningless drivel I shouldn’t say when engaging or consoling a student, but the same, disingenuous script of “Don’t worry, ignore him/her” would tumble out anyway. What kind of vocabulary should I have used instead?

  • Follow the White Rabbit

    I want to build on what Carl Miller wrote about, above – “…you approach it as a way of placing the onus on both sides to understand the situation, and through understanding, you hope to achive a rational outcome.”

    As I read the NYTimes piece, my mind flashed to one of the key non-academic texts on ABUSIVE behavior available to the general public. It’s oriented toward women in abusive romantic relationships, but really, the content applies to any ABUSER/VICTIM situation. The book is Lundy Bancroft’s “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.” Again, if you can get past the title and framework, it is a WEALTH of information on ABUSIVE people – what motivates them, how they operate, how to detect them, etc.

    One of the CRITICAL points that Bancroft makes is that when you have an abuser and a victim – in his context, a couple – you DO NOT treat them through couples’ counseling. (He includes a warning that this is actually quite dangerous for the victim.) You simply DO NOT ask the victim to take responsibility for the abuser’s abuse. The victim is NOT responsible for the abuser’s abuse, and the abuser – if it truly is a bullying/abusive scenario – will likely RELISH having the victim put in a position of trying to understand/offer empathy/help to correct the abuse. The responsibility for stopping the abuse lies with the ABUSER.

    I was bullied in school growing up, my father was extremely abusive, and I recently survived an abusive relationship. I’ve experienced it firsthand, and how, and Bancroft NAILS it. Anyone who wants to help bullied children MUST educate themselves on this, and other related, research on abuse that has ALREADY been completed and published.

    All of this said, kids have it especially tough, as has already been noted. In an adult context, the victim can usually distance themselves from their abuser – if not immediately, then over time with a plan. But what do you do for a child who is bullied at school? You can switch schools, but that’s not feasible for many families. This means that the bullies must somehow be stopped. (Telling the victims to suck it, in so many words, up DOES NOT help, but we already know that.) We clearly have a ways to go in cracking this nut.

    I appreciate the work done by these researchers – I think this is a big step in the right direction, but I hope that they will also familiarize themselves with the publications that exist about ABUSIVE behavior and incorporate that into their work.

    In an ideal world, childhood bullies could be identified, interventions could occur, and we could end up with fewer abusive adults. I can hope, anyway, right?

    One last note – I recently exposed my abusive ex’s diabolical lies, cheating and cruelty to one of the other women he had been romancing secretly – she was a close friend of his, as well. She, a professional woman in her 30′s, dismissed me as creating “unnecessary drama.” A very interesting choice of words, I think, given what these researchers have identified. I don’t know this woman, but from what I gather, I suspect she is similarly callous and manipulative like my ex, and she was minimizing my concerns as a way to minimize the harm she had done by standing by him and supporting him in his malicious deceit. Personally, I don’t think bullies grow up and change for the better – I think many of them learn how to become more subtle and sneaky about their nasty ways.

  • Follow the White Rabbit

    Oh, dear – a bit embarrassing. I was reading several related posts, and I *just* realized that this is the website of one of the study’s authors. (Hi!) I suppose my comment sounds a bit silly, realizing this. Sorry about that! I’m usually a bit more mindful of myself. :)

  • phil

    “For most teenagers, the language of bullying does not resonate. When teachers come in and give anti-bullying messages, it has little effect on most teens. Why? ”

    Because there is no common framework for social cooperation among youth, who have modeled the endlessly self-absorbed behavior of their parents. Take a look at the decline in empathy among youth – something like 40% over the last 15 years.

    Bullying is a symptom of a larger problem – a self-absorbed society and an adult population too busy paying bills to spend enough time with kids.

    Last, we have substituted mass education for the normal socialization among adults that would most naturally start to occur around puberty.

  • Great post, danah. This is an important piece because it’s an opening – an invitation to think through issues that badly need to be discussed. A couple quick areas this opens up in my own thinking:

    1) One thing you don’t really mention and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on – you don’t talk in this short piece about the specific issues around online versus physical bullying. You don’t really mention Internet stuff at all so to speak. So when you say “When teachers come in and give anti-bullying messages, it has little effect on most teens. Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive.” Could another issue be that “bullying” in dominant American English at least as a category is associated with physical acts – shoving against a locker, or even speech uttered in a hallway. But that an online posting on Facebook is “drama” not “bullying” precisely (or at least in part) because it’s online. So one reason for the disconnect of anti-bullying messages is even given all the recent press about online acts, “bullying” is associated by many teens with physical acts, whereas for adults “bullying” does double duty. It can be physical bullying or online bullying. But for the teens, “cyberbullying” is an oxymoron because “bullying” means “offline.”

    2) Your narrative emphasized interpersonal conflicts and perpetrators versus victims. But it seems that often what makes things so intolerable is a “dogpiling” phenomenon where it is multiple youth creating drama/bullying/attacking/whatever you want to call it a youth who is in some way isolated or unable to rally a group of peers. Is what makes something “drama” that it involves needless emotion, or also that it’s played out on a social stage with an audience? When and when not? Etc.

    Gotta run – just some quick thoughts. A very stimulating piece. I’ll be interested to hear if you know of any research of your own or that others have done that speaks to either of these musings above.

  • John

    I was shocked recently, after looking at some text messages on my sons phone from his mates, the type of language and attitudes that come from high school aged kids. The attitudes have not seemed to have changed since I was at school. While the texts I observed were aboriginal jokes and quite nasty, (my son was not involved in the dialogue which I am happy about), I have also noticed generally that any reference to homosexuality in teen language is generally negative. Its a difficult one to solve and I don’t think the answer is here yet. I see the Internet as being good news for victims of bullying though in being able to help them connect and gain support. Unless the education includes parents I don’t think that it will have a big effect.

  • This recent tragedy occurred in my community and I am sad to say this is not the first suicide at this school. I think phil has a very solid point regarding social cooperation among youth and I also feel that society generally forgets that the teen years are wrought with emotionally instability. You just don’t have the capacity to rationalize through the intensity of things at the age in most cases.

    I spent all of my youth and teen years in parochial schools and I swear it is ten times worse in those environments. I can recall countless times where I dreaded waking up in the morning and eventually considered suicide as a viable way out of the torment. I asked for help on multiple occasions and was told I was “too sensitive” or to just “ignore them”. I was eventually carted off to multiple mental health care specialists and spent years down a path of disordered eating, depression, and anxiety. These issues were compounded by complications in my home environment.

    I think that so much of the problem extends beyond the classroom, which is why schools appear to be hesitant when it comes to really stepping in.

  • Maria

    I was “bullied” relentlessly as a child. I agree that the language we use to describe the situation is very important. As an adult looking back on the experience, the most painful memories aren’t of the abuse itself, but the memories of what the adults told me. “You’re bringing it upon yourself,” “You’ve just gotta let it roll off your back like a duck,” “Why don’t you just ignore them?” “You just need a thicker skin,” “Maybe if you didn’t use big words/cry easily/dress funny the other girls would like you,” “It’s normal childhood behavior.” Twenty years later, just typing those words makes me sick to my stomach. I agree totally with Follow The White Rabbit that bullying is abuse and the victim should never be held responsible for stopping the behavior. I feel like the word “bullying” suggests “kids will be kids” which is completely wrong. The thing that could have stopped the abuse in my case would have been teachers who didn’t allow it. Simple as that. I was never bothered in one teacher’s class because she didn’t allow verbal abuse of any kind. Another teacher would allow it to happen during class and would even encourage it by scolding me for reacting and occasionally sending me to the principal’s office for “causing a disruption.” I don’t think I need to describe how awful that was.

  • James

    I was also bullied as a child, through much of elementary school and through the later years of high school (with a welcome reprieve through middle years). I often wondered then why my parents and the teachers weren’t willing to do anything about it. I realize now that, as an adult, I don’t know what I would do about it if it were my child.

    Bullying is one of those things that everyone experiences to some degree or another, or so I’ve been taught. I would be willing to write it off as a part of growing up — a learning experience that we all need to have — but I also remember how hard it was (I, too, considered suicide on more than one occasion) and I can’t stomach the thought that we should all have to endure this. As adults, we often say things like, “It’s just high school,” or, “They’ll grow out of it,” and I remember being told those same things as a child, but an 8 year old can’t possibly understand what that means, and for a 14 year old, high school is your entire world. We can’t just do nothing, but what can be done?

    For me, the worst part was the “dog-piling” that somebody else had mentioned. When it was an isolated individual or a small group, I could deal with it, but when my entire class or school joined in, that feeling of helplessness and isolation was overwhelming. Combined with the knowledge that this could last for the next several years of school, it was a living hell.

    I agree with what another poster said that, first and foremost, we have to consider this like any other abusive situation. The most important first step is to break the cycle of abuse. The hardest part for me was knowing I would have to face the same people and the same abuse day after day. The best day I had in the middle of it all was the day my mother allowed me to stay home because I couldn’t face another day. A person being abused can’t begin to recover or think logically until they can get out of the abusive situation.

    In order for this to happen, I think we need to take abuse more seriously. From my experience, schools and parents alike didn’t take kids seriously when they said they were being bullied. Teachers would shrug it off, or say to ignore it, or would try to be “unbiased” and thought I could be making it up. The first reaction should always be to dig deeper and find out what’s really going on.

    I also know that teachers today don’t have the power to actually stop the abuse. For starters, they are barely able to punish kids during school hours, but bullying goes beyond the classroom. When bullies would be punished, they would take it out on you on the streets. When the school would call their parents, the parents were either in denial or apologetic, but rarely took steps with their own child. I suspect many of them were abusive to their own children (I know at least a couple of them were). Even if the parents had punished them, they would just strike back harder next time. Bullying was always an arms race and it would take more than the schools to stop it.

    Worse yet, teachers often handled it completely wrong. They would bring the bullies together with the victims and make the victims retell the story of what happened, forcing the victim to relive the trauma and to admit to the bully their own helplessness. Being forced to “forgive” the bully, who was always forced to give a false apology, was acknowledging that the bully would receive no further punishment and that the abuse would continue the next day. When things became bad enough, I even had my principal approach the class (with myself present) and talk about how “somebody” was being bullied and how hurt that person feel as a result. Of course, everybody knew who he was talking about and many of them looked at me with pity. I felt nothing but shame for having my own weakness pointed out to all of my peers. The cure was worse than the disease.

    Looking back on it, I think the biggest problem was that bullying was accepted by everybody involved. The adults thought it was normal, the bystanders would eventually join in, and the victims were always told that it happens to everybody and you just have to deal with it. As long as the entire world allowed it to happen, it did. What if we didn’t believe that? What if the other children ostracized the bully or even intervened and defended the victim? What if adults all agreed this was the worst thing that could ever happen to a child and dealt with it quickly and harshly? It seems ideal, but I can’t think of a different situation that would end it.

    But from what I’ve seen and read as an adult, it seems that this has always been a part of the human condition. From the crowds that walk blindly by as a women is mugged or raped, to the mobs that join in on a riot for no reason and join the beating of a person they don’t even know, people will rarely stand against abuse, even as adults. None of us wants to become the next victim and none of us wants to admit that we are powerless to stop it.

    This is the way I see it. We would have to change social moors and perhaps even our own instincts before we could stop bullying. Until then, intervention is the best we can do. And I don’t mean bringing in psychologists to tell the child, “everything will be alright; just ignore them,” as I was told so many times, but rather to separate the abuser from the victim, not by isolating the victim, but by isolating the abuser. This is how we do it in the adult world and — in an analogous way — it’s how we need to do it in our children’s world.

    Coming back to Danah’s discovery that victims call it “drama” to avoid accepting the reality, I think this goes hand-in-hand with the universal acceptance of bullying. Despite the antibullying messages that kids might be told at times, there is an entire society — from parents, to siblings, to shows on TV — that reiterates the idea that drama is a normal part of adolescent life. Just look at any TV show that kids then and now would have seen to give them an expectation of teenage life — Saved By The Bell, Degrassi High, Glee, etc. — and you’ll see “drama” as it is now called. It’s not demonized; it’s embraced as entertainment. The story always ends the same way too — the bully is eventually made the fool, everybody sympathizes with the victim, and the victim becomes successful. While this story may help victims to feel they can make it through, I think it reinforces the belief that this is normal and something that kids grow out of. It masks the fact that bullies are rarely dealt with, that others are scared to intervene, and that the victims don’t always see their way through to the end. The reality, like Lord of the Flies, would be a hard pill to swallow and certainly wouldn’t make for feel-good daytime TV. Nobody wants to believe that they are capable of such things and that they live in a society that would allow it.

    I don’t know what one could do to change such a consistent belief in our society; my own analysis raises more questions than answers. I don’t honestly believe anything could stop bullying, any more than we can make all people honest and generous. Then again, I’ve never lost that instinct that I learned as a child that anybody can become a bully. I still see it in adults. I still see the aggressors, and the silent bystanders, and sometimes even the mob mentality. We call it business, or politics, or the social ladder. We still accept it as normal. The bullies go on campaign trails or host talk shows where they bemoan people for their sexuality, their religion, their race, or their political association. They single people out, dig up their past, and splatter it across TVs and newspapers. As far as I can tell, it’s the same behavior, and our society is still just as accepting of it. If we can’t even accept that we allow it in our own worlds, how can we expect to deal with it in our children’s?

  • Bullying is the major mechanism for adult interactions, certainly that is how politics is done these days.

    Who was booed during the GOP presidential debate? A gay soldier? What does the acceptance of bullying (booing someone simply for existing is bullying) by the presidential candidates tell us about bullying? Bullying is ok if it is done to someone who is not “like us”.

    When Perry’s record on executions was brought up, the crowd cheered. What does cheering about execution tell us about the mind set of those doing the cheering?

    When the anecdote about someone without health insurance was brought up, there were shouts to let him die. What does that tell us about the mind set of those doing the shouting?

    Adults telling teenagers that bullying is not ok is one thing, but when those same adults go out and use bullying to achieve their goals, that sends a much stronger message that bullying is ok.

    Lip service about bullying isn’t going to change anything, so long as adults in power still use bullying to achieve and to maintain that power.

    Lets be clear what bullying is, it is a hate crime. By my definition, a “hate crime” is a crime where the objective is to hurt the victim, rather than to benefit the perpetrator. It is on a continuum, at one extreme people are tortured to death, at the other extreme they are merely bullied. The goal is the same, for the perpetrator to hurt the victim, hurt them so much that they are less successful and in the limit hurt them so much that they die.

  • David H

    I connected with this article, though it seems like many commenters did not. It relates to another truism I’ve come to realize over the years: “no one ever thinks they’re a bad person.”

    Thinking back on my own experiences, I would say no one who ever bullied me thought of themselves as a bully. They thought they were just having a laugh. I’m sure my stoic exterior didn’t do much to articulate that I wasn’t laughing with them, but I had no other interpersonal tools to wield at that age while still retaining the illusion of dignity. What I think your article recognizes that’s important is that no minor is connecting with the messaging of adults. Then, even if they do connect, the way adults intervene can be a hugely humiliating experience and show of weakness.

    Dare I ask a stupid question: when/where are children expected to learn etiquette these days? From how they relate to their parents? Their authority in that relationship keeps their kids from learning how to relate in a healthy way to equals. It’s easy to see how bad behaviors emerge, but who is teaching healthy behaviors?

  • A few thoughts on this complex issue
    Work with the kids, they will soon tell you how to frame things so they work

    Bullys bully because they have no compassion for others. But how can we expect them to develop compassion if we do not show them what it is. Why don’t we teach compassion in our schools when the lack of it is the cause of bullying, not to mention wars etc at a global level?

    Unfortunately, our schools are full of unlabelled bullies, many in the disguise of teachers. Bad role models need to be weeded out.

    My experience with teens and bullying has shown me a couple of things that work
    1 – once you have managed to get the bully to see that he or she is actually bullying, or the victim (I never use that word with the kids, I say ‘the person being bullied’) to recognise that they are being bullied, most of them do want to do somthing about it. The fact that they don’t want to see themselves that way is good because it makes them want to try to work it out. So at least the education brought us that far. The what do they do to stop it step is the one we need to focus on – see my next point. This is where it is important to have the support of someone in the school who is skilled in this area.

    2 – the use of analogies to get across ways to deal with the emotional hurt are very helpful(see the happiness hints on http://happyhonkers.wordpress.com for the kind of thing I’m talking about). Vibrant analogies are easier to remember and therefore put into practice.

    3 – The best way I have found to help bullies stop bullying is to get them to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. One of the ways I’ve done this is by switching the names and telling them their own story, so the bully hears about himself as if he were the person he was bullying and visa versa.

  • We all need to feel powerful and I feel that oftentimes bullying stems from that need gone awry. When feeling powerful or significant comes at someone else’s EXPENSE, then its wrong. Easy to say, but we all do it at various stages of life. We want to know we matter and violence towards another is a cheap shortcut to feeling powerful.

    Cyberbullies are doing so out of an emotional need. So a cognitive correction is not enough. They have to be made to feel the emotional pain of their actions and stop objectifying their victim. In other words, to see the victim as themselves – or at least something in common. Evil in fallen human nature resists that very compassion that would heal both sides of the situation.

    How do we find a more true means of feeling powerful, worthwhile and important. Find the key to real significance and then bullying becomes cheap and unattractive to the abuser I’d like to hope. http://www.EyeGuardian.com for protection against cyberbullying.

  • Scott R

    I think we need to be real here- Jamey died because he was gay. He faced bullying/drama/harassment/whatever you’d like to call it at school but the baseline here was homophobia and likely sexism. This is something that GLBT students face at school. I like that you put a spotlight on “It’s Gets Better”. Because the truth is it did not get better for this student and he truly believed that it would. What he needed was a transformation in his high school to openly reject homophobia and empower it’s queer students and provide an outlet for them to express themselves and talk to each other about the harassment they faced in school, with a faculty /staff ally. For those that harassed and created a violent school environment, I wonder what their parents think? Do they care if their student calls someone a “fag” at school? Do the teachers? Do the ADULTS in this environment truly think that Jamey has a right to be gay at school? To fully express himself as a young person with a sexual identity on par with the kinds of heterosexual identities that students are encouraged to have by flaunting their relationships in hallways, school dances, and yearbooks? These are difficult questions, I feel that we need more space and bravery to put them in the front and center of this debate.

  • laila callas

    I loved your observation about “drama” and about reluctance to identify as a victim. I’ve seen this in many adult concepts as well affecting women, minorities and people in repressive governments. People will say that maybe there is a problem, but that problem never affects *them*, their office, or their neighborhood. This is how my bf is able to come back from Saudi and the UAE with a very positive impression from the people who live there (I’m arabic, btw), since none of them are willing to admit that they face problems. No one wants to be a victim, not even in their own minds. Grown women often struggle to come to terms with the fact that relationships they’ve been have been abusive and a man my friend dated actually *cried* when she explained to him that he had in fact raped her. That’s the degree of disconnect.

    Then there’s a comment above in this thread that highlights that when people *do* break out of this mindset and speak out, they are often accused of ‘creating drama’.

    Changing the language we use to reach out to people, to help them identify and recognise what they’re experiencing as survivors or perpetuating as abusers is *wrong* is the first step towards changing not just teen bullying, but a number of social problems.

    Love your work xxx

  • Simon Seamount

    When a child comes to an adult and says, I am being bullied, what do I do, I think the reason no adult knows what to do in response is because the one solution we have used for the past few million years is deemed unacceptable in our attempts to maintain a peaceful society, and it is the solution that comes to mind, and then we dismiss it, and stand with a blank mind because we have no other idea how to stop bullies.

    We would fight back.

    The reason we try not to suggest fighting back is because a continual legacy of violence has characterized social interaction the past 10,000 years. Fighting back lead to people ganging up and forming armies, and the rise of generals and kings, and the whole 10,000-year history of tribal aggression, which has evolved into our current political structure of nation states with borders and standing armies and elected politicians who manage our gang versus other gangs, and has lead to the establishment of the United Nations as a global council to maintain an uneasy peace to foster business in commercial exchange instead of fighting between nations.

    Why is that person being a bully? Do they feel threatened? Is there something they want that they are not getting? Do they feel weak? We all get violent and angry when we feel threatened and weak.

    So, perhaps the positive response is to get the bully into a room with adults who explain why bullying will lead to violence, and then address why the bully feels insecure, and try to help them solve the problem through creative reason rather than bullying another person.

  • Shelley Owen

    “Bullying was always an arms race and it would take more than the schools to stop it.” This comment really resonated with me because the analogy takes the bullying issue out the context of interpersonal behavior and onto the larger world stage. James and several others here have rightly pointed out that the aggressive behavior we see in our children is a reflection of our society and culture. One need not look very far at all to see an almost complete lack of empathy, compassion, honesty, and responsibility run amok in our society, our institutions and culture. I am often overwhelmed with despair when I think about the kind of world my child, all our children, must learn to thrive in; being a bully seems to have an advantage in our competitive economy, played out on the stage of an increasingly wide separation between the people with money, resources, and opportunity (power) and those without. I must also point the finger at organized religion, supposedly the keepers of morality, as some zealots continue to create and perpetuate divisive dogma that negate our attempts to change anything for the better. The recent weakening of the LGBT anti-bullying legislation in Michigan by religious groups is one case in point. Apparently it is OK to “bully” in Michigan if it’s based on a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” We consistently show our children that bullying is an accepted and rewarded life skill. Whether it’s called drama or bullying, it’s a pernicious symptom of a much larger problem.

    The only possible way to root out the abuser/victim behavior we condemn in our school environments is to be the change we want to see in the world (thanks Ghandi!), and model ethical, thoughtful behavior ourselves. From the very start, let children see that an awesome choice awaits every person, every day. Talk about your choices with children and why you made them. Each choice requires the ability to think critically. Unfortunately, our schools have become places where critical thinking is not an advantage to success – rote memorization, blind acceptance, and test taking skills are all that’s necessary to succeed in school. Diversity, in any form, is ignored, or worse, condemned. The happiness and fulfillment that comes from life-long learning is never demonstrated. I would consider drugging the child who cannot sit still, a form of institutionalized bullying or abuse. When we are complicit in systems that negatively impact whole segments of society (or even just one student), children see through that. Even small children can experience and understand the connection between treating others well and feeling good themselves. It is the science of morality. The hypocrisy of our actions as well as the consequences of our poor choices is not lost on the young among us. If we want to have a real talk about bullying it has to start with us, the adults in the room.

  • john g

    In an Eric Schmidt moment of clarity consider: “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had” Eric Schmidt, CEO Google I would paraphrase add to that the 60s peace slogan that war is not healthy for children and other living things as internet anarchy is not healthy for children, and most of their parents for that matter. Thanks Eric Schmidt, who do we blame, Al Gore or Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee for giving us this messed up anarchy ontology? I like the Google approaches such as from Vic Gundotra where he touts the advantages it has as a better way to spy on your kids.

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