“Bullying” Has Little Resonance with Teenagers

Ever had one of dem days you wish woulda stayed home / Run into a
group of niggas who getting they hate on / You walk by they get wrong you reply
then shit get blown / Way outta proportion way past discussion / Just you
against them, pick one then rush em / Figure you get jumped here thats next /
They don’t wanna stop there now they bustin / Now you gushin, ambulance rushin
you to the hospital / with a bad concussion / Plus ya hit 4 times bullet hit ya
spine paralyzed waist down / now ya wheel chair bound / Never mind that now you lucky to be alive.
– T.I. “Dead and Gone”

[Originally posted on DML]

Sometimes, I feel like I’m living in parallel universes. I attend conferences and hear from parents and journalists who are talking about the bullying pandemic. And then I talk with teenagers about their social dramas, producing the interactions that adults identify as bullying. I hear from well-meaning adults about how they want to create interventions to help teenagers with bullying. And then I hear teens complain about the assemblies and messaging that they’re forced to listen to that don’t even begin to resonate with them. Whenever I talk to folks about bullying, I’m forced to confront the fact that adults and teens are talking past one another. And then I hear songs like T.I.’s “Dead and Gone” that capture the escalation at the most extreme sense and hope that teens are taking home the core message of the song, which T.I. captures simply as “I won that fight, I lost that war.” The cultural logic underpinning bullying is far more complex than most adults realize. And technology is not radically changing what’s happening; it’s simply making what’s happening far more visible. If we want to combat bullying, we need to start by understanding the underlying dynamics. And we need to approach interventions with an evaluation-based mindset. We won’t know how to stop bullying and no amount of legislation requiring education is going to do squat until we actually find intervention mechanisms that work. And that starts with understanding what’s happening.
The Way Teens See It

When I first started interviewing teenagers about bullying, they would dismiss my questions. “Bullying is so middle/elementary school,” they’d say. “There’s no bullying problem at my school,” they’d say. And then, as our interview would continue, I’d hear about all sorts of interactions that sounded like bullying. I quickly realized that we were speaking different languages. They’d be talking about “starting drama” or “getting into fights” or “getting into my business” or “being mean.” They didn’t see rumors or gossip as bullying, regardless of whether or not it happened online. And girls didn’t see fighting over boys or ostracizing one another because of boys as bullying. They didn’t even see producing fight videos as bullying.

So then I started asking them what bullying was. What I learned was that bullying was when someone picked on someone or physically hurt someone who didn’t deserve it. I’d ask how they knew if someone deserved it and the response was incredulous, “oh, you know.” So I pushed harder… “what if you don’t know?” I asked. I got blank stares so I took a different tactic. “What if someone’s messing with someone and that other person thinks they’re being mean?” This got their attention, but not in the way that I expected. Most told me that you know when someone is messing with you and that if you don’t, you’re stupid. Besides, when someone’s messing with you, you can’t take it seriously.

Of course, teens do take it seriously. And they do misinterpret when people are messing with them. And they do take minor social infractions personally. And then things escalate. And here’s what makes bullying so difficult to address. So often, one person thinks that they’re not at fault and that they’re simply a victim of bullying. But those who are engaged in the bullying see it entirely differently. They blame the person and see what they’re doing as retaliation. None of this is communicated, of course, so things can quickly spiral out of control without anyone really knowing where it all began.

A Story: Janiya and Precious

I was talking with Janiya about who she was friends with on Facebook and she told me “everyone.” I asked her if there was anyone from school that she was not friends with on Facebook and she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, Precious.” When I asked her why, she said “I just don’t like her.” Slowly, the story unfolded that she and Precious were currently entangled in a “situation” that had recently blown up pretty badly such that parents were involved. After hearing about the current squabbles, I asked Janiya to think back to a time when she and Precious were friends. I asked her what went wrong. Eventually, she told me about a birthday party in the 4th grade where Janiya played a joke on Precious and Precious took it really badly. It became clear that, ever since then, they were up and down. They didn’t trust one another and it sounded like they regularly misinterpreted what the other had said or done. Everything became personal and, when things got bad, it escalated into a physical fight. From Janiya’s point of view, she’d done nothing wrong; it was all Precious’ fault. But, reading between the lines, it was clear that Precious had a very different POV. I asked Janiya if this was bullying and she told me that Precious and her mom were bullies. I doubt that Precious would see it that way.

So how do we intervene with Janiya and Precious? A lecture on bullying is going to be completely ignored by both of them, either as irrelevant or meaningless to them personally. They don’t see what they’re doing as bullying. What Janiya and Precious need is to understand the situation from each other’s perspective
and to have empathy for how the other experiences what’s unfolding. That’s not an easy thing to do. Heck, that’s extremely hard. Just ask any marital

therapist who’s trying to help a couple work through their relationship. Janiya has a different solution in mind: make Precious change schools. She’s not interested in solving the relationship drama; she just wants Precious out of her life. And the only way that she can imagine this happening is by making it hard for Precious to stick around. So she’s taken a pretty strict stance: she never looks Precious in the eye or speaks to her so as to pretend that she’s invisible. And she encourages her friends to do the same. Online and off.

Empathy, Not Technology, Is Core of the Problem and the Solution

Janiya and Precious are trapped in a full-blown battle, but these dynamics are not unique. Girls ostracize one another either because of personal collisions or in support of their friends’ dramas. They make each other miserable by spreading rumors or gossiping behind their back. Technology is employed in efforts to humiliate, deprecate, or isolate. The end result for girls tends to be verbal and emotional torment. Boys, on the other hand, tend to front in order to move towards a physical altercation. Or to intimidate or humiliate. But in all cases, the point is to show who has social power. It’s all about creating and reinforcing hierarchies. In schools where status-driven hierarchies aren’t acutely maintained by teens, bullying isn’t so dominant. But when there’s something to be gained by putting someone down, bullying rears its ugly head.

When I look at how teens hurt each other, I can’t help but also see how they’re developing training wheels for future relationships and reflecting normative behaviors that they see around them. I hear teens’ dramas reflected in their stories about how their parents fight – with each other, with their friends and family and colleagues, and with them. What teens are doing is more coarse, more direct, and more explicit. But they’re witnessing adult dramas all around them and what they tend to see isn’t pretty. Parents talking smack about work colleagues or bosses. Parents fighting with each other or ostracizing their family members over disagreements. And it’s not just parents…Teens are seeing fights and dramas all over the media. Celebrity fights and dramas aren’t just in their face; they’re glorified! And even if MTV comments on domestic abuse after airing Jersey Shore, the way that the housemates treat each other sets a standard for what’s societally acceptable. Teens are seeing drama everywhere – they’re seeing it as a legitimate part of adult society that can often lead to notoriety.

Let’s Understand, Then Act

And here’s where we run into another major component of bullying… attention. In a world of brands and marketing, there’s a sentiment that there is no such thing as bad attention. Countless teens are desperately seeking attention. And there’s nothing like “starting drama” to guarantee both attention and entertainment. So teens jump in, adding fuel to the flame because it’s fun. They know that it hurts, but it also feels good sometimes too. And this is what makes music videos like Eminem & Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” resonate with both adults and teens. The drama is half the fun, even when it hurts like hell.

Combating bullying is not going to be easy, but it’s definitely not going to happen if we don’t dive deep in the mess that underpins it and surrounds it. Lectures by uncool old people like me aren’t going to make teens who are engaged in dramas think twice about what they’re doing. And, for that matter, using the term “bullying” is also not going to help at all either. We need interventions that focus on building empathy, identifying escalation, and techniques for stopping the cycles of abuse. We need to create environments where young people don’t get validated for negative attention and where they don’t see relationship drama as part of normal adult life. The issues here are systemic. And it’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem here. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle for attention, validation, and status. And unless we find effective ways of getting to the root of the problem, the Internet will just continue to be used to reinforce what is pervasive.

Banner image credit: lenifuzhead

Second image credit: *nimil*

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28 thoughts on ““Bullying” Has Little Resonance with Teenagers

  1. Katherine

    LOVE (Leave Out Violence Everywhere)started in Montreal – it works. Kids talking to kids, rappers prsenting in the schools. Youth in the programmes (some victimes of bullying, perpetrators, witnesses of violence, etc.) benefit from courses in photo-journalism and leadership training to spread the message, peer to peer. Here is the link, they have programmes now in NYC, Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax). http://www.leaveoutviolence.com/english/index.htm

  2. anarchotoads

    Thank you, a very rational and informed view. I think it ridiculous when I hear hyped accounts of ‘internet bullying’ and yet parents allow their children to watch stuff like Jersey Shore which glorify violence in the physical, verbal and social sense? Teenagers are not evil creatures who seek out the internet as a new medium to exact bullying, but are emulating the drama that they see in the mainstream media.
    Certainly I think too that a problem arises from the parents – I was always told to ‘hit back ten times harder’ rather than talk to people if I were bullied, but in a world where physical violence seems to have more unwanted side-effects than mere emotional violence, teens seem to talk ‘stand up for yourself’ to mean ‘denigrate the other person’ and not ‘sort it out.’

  3. hfm

    I’m 21 and currently studying at a university where I’m training as a teacher for my post grad & bullying occurs in my large class too. It’s cruel comments, little snarky mutterings which resonance across the lecture theatre. A culture of texting during seminars & lectures which contains snippets of gossip, people play pranks on one another & this just what I’m aware of- I haven’t been a victim & neither have I instigated it, but I am fully aware of what happens amongst my peers.

    Would a dialogue about bullying or victimization help? I highly doubt it. I can’t see a solution here, it feels like wherever there are people- there’s a subtle/obvious heirachy of a bully& a victim. We see it everywhere, in the workplace, politics, homes, friendships- I feel as though teenagers are only under scrutiny because they’re at that stage where they are close to being adults, but are still under some supervision which controls & maintains their behaviour. It’s the same everywhere, does solving a teenage bullying issue really eradicate the entire society’s behaviour? No.

  4. Troy

    “So often, one person thinks that they’re not at fault and that they’re simply a victim of bullying. But those who are engaged in the bullying see it entirely differently. They blame the person and see what they’re doing as retaliation. None of this is communicated, of course, so things can quickly spiral out of control without anyone really knowing where it all began.” …and in the grownup world we call this War.

    A lot of great points, especially around the problems of multiple meanings for the term bullying. And again, it’s this ambiguous/unsettled terminology that contributes to this whole idea of people not knowing where problems actually begin.

  5. Tally

    I’m a teen. Someone linked me to this blog, and OMG, it’s so true. All these teachers and counselors talk to us about bullying, and no one really listens, because they all talk about it like we go out of our way to cause trouble but it’s really just how high school works. All this stuff you’re talking about (gossip, rumors and drama) isn’t what we call bullying, it’s just the easiest way to make friends with people. Most people are friends because they don’t like other people instead of because they like each other. Being bitchy is just kind of the only way to not be a total loser. I’m glad an adult finally gets it!!

  6. Deb

    Wrote a longer comment but decided it was too personal to post. The bottom line was that I agree. I have been frustrated for 20 years with the way schools address “bullying” by writing “action plans” and having themed lectures and classes on “bullying”, using info/educational materials depicting bullying in a way the kids can’t relate to while instructing teachers to look for things they won’t see in the school yard or hallways. I suffered through it in school and got little help because I didn’t fit the “cardinal signs” that school employees had been taught to look for.

    I became a freelancer and I work from home because I still, at 32, can’t function in a group. So yes, this is so, so important. Thank you for bringing it up.

  7. zephoria Post author

    I received the following email from someone who wants to be anonymous but I think that the message is very powerful and, thus, must be shared:

    I was bullied at school. I was the victim. Poor little me. (UK School, not really that bad compared to other stories but seemed bad at the time). Early 90s.

    Years later I met a bloke in the pub I had no memory of. He told me how I bullied him systematically for years. He remembered my name VERY clearly, but wasn’t bitter and I was shocked at what he told me of me picking on him and lording a bit of privilage over him.

    I have no memory of what I did, but don’t see why he’d lie about it. If anything it stopped me seeing myself as the victim and realise it probably wasn’t how I remember it. I remember humiliations and wins but no so much those of others.

    ps. He was very nice about the whole thing and we had a pint and a chat.

  8. Hollie Mendenhall

    Very insightful, and a refreshing look at the root of the problem. I want my administrators to see this post!

  9. Gustavo Mesch

    danah, very interesting posting. The problem with bullying is one of definition. Teens are developing social identity, and part of this development is being moderately mean, making a statement, fighting for social status. At some point it cross the borders of normal to pathological….and here is the problem as teens tend to normalize a pathological situation.
    In my view bullying needs to be studied as
    1. a characteristic of social networks. There are networks of bullying, is not school but networks that cross grades lines and face to face space to online space and viceversa.
    2. Is not new, but is amplified online because of the audience.
    We wrote on this in our book Mesch&Talmud (2010) Wired Youth chapter 7 in the context of positive and negative youth social networks.
    Keep doing this research is very important.

  10. Siderea

    What you write sounds to me very similar to what Rachel Sommers has to say in Curse of the Good Girl. In particular, she observes the same thing you do (she’s writing of middle school aged girls) about antagonism escalating in ignorance of the other’s grievance. Are you familiar with her work? Your examples are all from female students, and you do mention the difference between typical girl and boy dynamics, but then you generalize to “students”. To what extent, do you think, is this conception of what bullying is and isn’t gendered?

  11. Marla

    Discovered an interesting NYT article tonight on creating empathy in kids and teens by bringing babies into classrooms. Seems far fetched yet apparently there’s some research demonstrating results. I’d be interested in your opinion Dana.



  12. Joel

    @Siderea: I think the details of how bullying occurs are highly gendered. This article didn’t touch on a single aspect that I’d witnessed and been part of in my school days (I’m male), but addressed aspects of bullying I’d never even considered before. So I think experiences vary widely, and gender probably plays a big role.

  13. Kristi

    “In schools where status-driven hierarchies aren’t acutely maintained by teens, bullying isn’t so dominant.” Wow. Do places like that exist? Certainly not in my (limited) experience. Certainly not in the media (TV, movies.) I’d love to hear more about these schools and how they achieved that kind of environment.

    Thank you SO much for this article. While much of what you write (though not all of it) is self-evident to me, it obviously is not to most adults. Any information we can have to turn our concern and caring into **meaningful** action is valuable. You’ve performed a service with this essay. I hope to hear from you more, and I hope that the schools can listen and create environments in which kids feel good about themselves and their relationships.

  14. Paul A Houle

    If you’re going to widen “bullying” to include all the kinds of emotional pain that high school students cause each other to suffer, don’t let yourself be blinded by the fashionable definitions of “otherness.”

    I’d say the exclusion that nerdy guys get from their exclusion from the dating scene is about as extreme as the segregation that black people experienced in the 1950’s in the U.S. and leaves long-lasting scars that affect the relationships between men and women for decades afterwards.

  15. LyleCogen

    Yes, you express this so well, with so much wisdom…to me, you hit the nail on the head. I’m a teaching artist and I use (social)drama and music to address this issue. As a parent I became distraught as I helplessly stood by and experienced the pain of feeling my child’s pain at being caught in nasty interlocking webs of social cruelties. I wanted to create a play based on real life that would stop kids in their tracks when they saw it. I wanted to write a play that was so real that the ending was NOT “and they lived happily ever after.” And I did. I received a commissioning from a performing arts center and received funding from the US Dept of Justice. I KNOW when I do this piece, they consider what they haven’t considered before, they reflect more, and they filter what want. Surely not everyone, but I see their faces from the stage. I know all of their faces. I look into the audience and I can see those that sit hunched over with a worried and sad cloud around them. But there are lots and lots of faces that look back at me with hope. I have to admit though often it frustrates me when I leave a school. It is up to the school to use this experience as a springboard. How many do? Not many. Some don’t even send their SEL staff into see the play. But I keep trudging on around the country performing this, and like I said, I believe i am making a difference.

  16. Chris j

    The story of Janiya & Precious are very common among Teenagers.. The behavior of teenagers towards bullies was same as Janiya behaved with Precious…Its really a very big issue between teenagers.They avoid making friends because of bullyng.

  17. Ian

    I think a lot of adults just want every kid to be able to live in an environment where no one is mean to anyone else, or if meanness happens, the perpetrator is immediately called on it and made to see that it’s bad to be mean. And really, it’s unrealistic – at least for high school. In elementary school in the 1960s, it was mostly possible to live in that world, but not wholly … and in middle and high school in the 70s, it was much less possible.

    You make a good point in saying the issues are systemic; I think that there is also a component of cognitive development that is a necessary step for children/teens to become emotionally mature: “what happens when someone is mean to me? to my friend? what happens when I am mean to someone?” The answers to these questions need to happen on both an intellectual and an emotional plane. But the range of possible reactions is really broad, even just in terms of brain chemistry – one person may find the results unpleasant in the extreme, while another gets a kind of rush out of the experience.

    Throwing large numbers of kids from disparate backgrounds together is part of the problem as well, especially because some cultures value the conflict-resolution-by-domination-of-one’s-“enemies” ethic much more than others.

  18. anarchotoads

    And today I read in the paper that the UK government is launching a ‘new campaign against cyber-bullying.’ Of course, there is little more detail than this because people unwittingly think anything against bullying is fine when, as you have pointed out, traditional methods and the differentiating of cyber and standard bullying is entirely counter-productive.

  19. Lianne

    Danah – I could hug you – thank you, thank you for saying what so needs to be said.

    Marla – thanks for linking to that excellent article. As a high school teacher for 20+ years I can assure you it is not far-fetched at all. One of the key ingredients of bullying is the fact that we have a culture that has thrown children in with their peers and we have lost the natural hierarchy. The natural hierarchy is one that allows us to both be cared for (dependent on those older than us) and be the caregiver (depended on by those smaller and/or weaker than us). The Japanese actually have distinct words for these two natural human inclinations. When children are in situations where a natural hierarchy is not available these natural instincts are thwarted and mutate into dysfunctional alpha and victim roles.

    Introducing babies into the classroom allows those natural instincts to be tapped into. And of course empathy is part and parcel of this instinct.

    I could go on and on about the topic of bullying and peer orientation, but I think it would be more productive to send anyone who may be interested to the website of my mentor who has spent the past 30 years working on this: Dr. Gordon Neufeld

  20. kelly

    your message is dead on. lack of empathy is being applauded in our society, and our kids are drowning in this national psychosis. “reality” shows that award lying, stealing, and backstabbing, “regular” programmes where the audience cheers for those we *used* to call “the bad guys,” and adults in their lives who care more about their own immediate gratification than their responsibilities as parents/role models is creating a society that is sociopathic.

    it is depressing to go to school and realise that my students not only don’t know what empathy is, they aren’t interested in having it! they want what they want when they want it, and no one has the right to stand in their way of getting it, whatever “it” is. if someone is eating a popsicle, and they want it but don’t have any money, well, they can take it. or extort someone else’s lunch money, or hey, why not just steal directly from the dairy? they’re just thieves anyway with their high prices, eh? change popsicle to ipod, or boyfriend, or whatever. same thought process.

    we teach (high school) thematically, and i incorporate issues such as personal responsibility, integrity, and empathy into our learning programme. but it is tough going. sometimes it feels like flying in the face of everything they experience outside the classroom, which is, let’s face it, where kids spend the majority of their time. bullying is not a child’s problem or a “school” issue – it has so burrowed into our culture that it is everyone’s problem – just ask the person whose car was keyed simply because someone else doesn’t have one like it, or the neighbour whose newly planted saplings in their front yard were stolen – for what? until we bring back positive characteristics and celebrate those who act with integrity, award those who do the right thing, *in the public eye,* i shudder to think where we’re going to end up.

    no, i am certainly not saying that the world should or can be all lightness and flowers where everyone is happy and no one gets picked on – that’s not reality either. what i am saying is that we cannot go on making “celebrities” out of a bunch of losers who are marketed directly to kids as “cool” and expect them to behave in the opposite manner. we cannot continue to glorify violence and expect our kids to believe it’s not ok. we need some balance. and parents need to pick up the slack and monitor their kids tv/film viewing, internet/game use, friends, and personal behaviour – you know, the stuff our parents did because it was their job. it would be great, too, if they modelled proper behavior. how are kids supposed to know how to behave if they don’t SEE it?

  21. Benjer McVeigh

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention…I’d often wondered about this, because I’ve rarely heard the students I work with talk about bullying. Now, this doesn’t mean that teenagers aren’t malicious to one another…I think it just means that this is nothing new. “Empathy, Not Technology, Is Core of the Problem and the Solution” hits the nail on the head. Unfortunately, the adolescent landscape is littered with dramatic confrontations and hateful exchanges that are more the norm than the exception.

  22. EJP

    To be honest, what I am most shocked at is that bullying is considered a “new” problem. It was certainly bad in my day, and having been a victim, I know that the issues from back then continue to resonate in life. I’m also astonished to see that some behaviors we all hated in high school persist even in adults (hence the popularity of the Real Housewives of … series and other similar shows).

    Not only are adults dumbing down the problem for teens, but they may not recognize it in themselves. Ironically, even though I was a victim in middle school and a bit in high school, I did catch myself doing it in college and I finally realized how seductive it was.

    The good news is that a school can be provide an environment which the environment for bullying is reduced. For instance, my high school was probably a lot less bullying than other high schools I have heard of. I think a key is to provide recognition for all activities (sports, academics, arts…) and also to stop or address bullying when it happens.

    For instance, when our high school’s academic bowl team went on TV, the principal was right there in the audience. I think that sends a message that academics is valued alongside athletics and that can be a boost for kids who may not be so athletic. It may sound trivial, but I wonder if the principal on the show Glee attends the glee club competitions.

  23. Etalwar

    I definitely agree with you that empathy, more so the lack of, is an ongoing problem related with bullying, but I think that technology is also at the core of the problem. You mention that for girls, the end result of bullying is verbal or emotional abuse. This type of abuse is fully supported by mobile phones. Texting is the easiest way for gossip to spread, and although teens do not identify with this gossip as bullying, it is mentioned that this texting is definitely considered bullying. Once a text message is sent, it is nearly impossible for it to be erased in the mobile network. On a larger scale, this is how mobile panics can be started. Therefore, bullying can be perceived as a much more subtle version of a mobile panic. We definitely need to make sure teens can empathize with other teens on the platform of bullying, since this will definitely be more helpful than lectures about stopping bullying. However, we must not forget to include mobile technologies in our plan of attack to prevent bullying. If we forget to acknowledge the Internet as a problem in the ongoing battle against bullying, it is very possible that we might overlook an important aspect to this issue.

  24. Invisible Isabel

    For some of us, fighting back online is the only way we get them to back off. If my arm gets broken by someone who takes a dislike to me, I run the risk of having the other one broken because I “ratted them out.” Or maybe my parents would get a brick or cinder block through their front window.

    Posting photographs of what happened online, smearing their reputation, driving their phone bills up, trashing their online homework assignments, creatively editing their papers (which are helpfully kept on the schoo’s file servers) the day before they’re due, costing them as much money as my medical bills did me, it’s all fair game.

    They can break out bodies, but we can break everything else, one keystroke at a time.

  25. Leigh

    When I read this I thought of those very popular schadenfreude sites : people of walmart, LATFH, regretsy, and awkward family photos plus too many college sites to mention.

    Is it possible that technology is at least a little bit to blame? Perhaps the increase in surveillance we’re all under is partly responsible for the lack of empathy and a cycle of, “ha,ha at least it’s not me… is it me?…”

  26. Julie Goldberg

    I agree with you that a lack of empathy is the root of many adolescent and adult problems. I would like, however, to draw a distinction between conflict and bullying. Two kids of equal power who are not getting along, who are arguing and fighting even, is not, to my way of thinking, a case of bullying. Two kids who possess equal social power can be engaged in a conflict-resolution process.

    Bullying is a kind of conflict in which power is unequal. Bullies understand power dynamics extremely well, but bullied kids are often flummoxed by power and have no idea how it works or how to respond. Here is an essay I wrote about this, called Reframing BullyingL Not Popular, But Powerful: http://perfectwhole.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/reframing-bullying-not-popular-but-powerful/

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