Stop the Cycle of Bullying

[John Palfrey and I originally wrote this as an op-ed for the Huffington Post. See HuffPo for more comments.]

On 22 September 2010, the wallet of Tyler Clementi – a gay freshman at Rutgers University – was found on the George Washington Bridge; his body was found in the Hudson River the following week. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was charged with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with witnesses and evidence tampering. Ravi pleaded not guilty.

Ravi’s trial officially begins this week, but in the court of public opinion, he has already been convicted. This is a terrible irony, since the case itself is about bullying.

Wading through the news reports, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened in the hours leading up to Clementi’s suicide. Some facts are unknown. What seems apparent is that Clementi asked Ravi to have his dormroom to himself on two occasions – September 19 and 21 – so that he could have alone time with an older gay man. On the first occasion, Ravi appears to have jiggered his computer so that he could watch the encounter from a remote computer. Ravi announced that he did so on Twitter. When Clementi asked Ravi for a second night in the room, Ravi invited others to watch via Twitter. It appears as though Clementi read this and unplugged Ravi’s computer, thereby preventing Ravi from watching. What happened after this incident on September 21 is unclear. A day later, Clementi’s body was discovered.

The media-driven narrative quickly blamed Ravi and his friend Molly Wei, from whose room Ravi watched Clementi. Amidst a series of other highly publicized LGBT suicides, Clementi’s suicide was labeled as a tragic product of homophobic bullying. Ravi has been portrayed as a malicious young man, hellbent on making his roommate miserable. Technology was blamed for providing a new mechanism by which Ravi could spy on and torment his roommate. The overwhelming presumption: Ravi’s guilty for causing Clementi’s death. Ravi may well be guilty of these crimes, but we have trials for a reason.

As information has emerged from the legal discovery process, the story became more complicated. It appears as though Clementi turned to online forums and friends to get advice; his messages conveyed a desire for getting support, but they didn’t suggest a pending suicide attempt. In one document submitted to the court, Clementi appears to have written to a friend that he was not particularly upset by Ravi’s invasion. Older digital traces left by Clementi – specifically those produced after he came out to and was rejected by those close to him – exhibited terrible emotional pain. At Rutgers, Clementi appears to have been handling his frustrations with his roommate reasonably well. After the events of September 20 and 21, Clementi appears to have notified both his resident assistant and university officials and asked for a new room; the school appears to have responded properly and Clementi appeared pleased.

The process of discovery in a lawsuit is an essential fact-finding exercise. The presumption of innocence is an essential American legal principle. Unfortunately, in highly publicized cases, this doesn’t stop people from jumping to conclusions based on snippets of information. Media speculation and hype surrounding Clementi’s suicide has been damning for Ravi, but the incident has also prompted all sorts of other outcomes. Public policy wheels have turned, prompting calls for new state and federal cyberbullying prevention laws. Well-meaning advocates have called for bullying to be declared a hate crime.

As researchers, we know that bullying is a serious, urgent issue. We favor aggressive and meaningful intervention programs to address it and to prevent young people from taking their lives. These programs should especially support LGBT youth, themselves more likely to be the targets of bullying. Yet, it’s also critical that we pay attention to the messages that researchers have been trying to communicate for years. “Bullies” are often themselves victims of other forms of cruelty and pressure. Zero-tolerance approaches to bullying don’t work; they often increase bullying. Focusing on punishment alone does little to address the underlying issues. Addressing bullying requires a serious social, economic, and time-based commitment to educating both young people and adults. Research shows that curricula and outreach programs can work. We are badly underfunding youth empowerment programs that could help enormously. Legislative moves that focus on punishment instead of education only make the situation worse.

Not only are most young people often ill-equipped to recognize how their meanness, cruelty, and pranking might cause pain, but most adults are themselves are ill-equipped to help young people in a productive way. Worse, many adults are themselves perpetuating the idea that being cruel is socially acceptable. Not only has cruelty and deception become status quo on TV talk shows; it plays a central role in televised entertainment and political debates. In contemporary culture, it has become acceptable to be outright cruel to any public figure, whether they’re a celebrity, reality TV contestant, or teenager awaiting trial.

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a tragedy. We should all be horrified that a teenager felt the need to take his life in our society. But in our frustration, we must not prosecute Dharun Ravi before he has had his day in court. We must not be bullies ourselves. Ravi’s life has already been destroyed by what he may or may not have done. The way we, the public, have treated him, even before his trial, has only made things worse.

To combat bullying, we need to stop the cycle of violence. We need to take the high road; we must refrain from acting like a mob, in Clementi’s name or otherwise. Every day, there are young people who are being tormented by their peers and by adults in their lives. If we want to make this stop, we need to get to the root of the problem. We should start by looking to ourselves.

danah boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a research assistant professor at New York University. John Palfrey is a professor of law at Harvard Law School.

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6 thoughts on “Stop the Cycle of Bullying

  1. Margaret

    I’ve appreciated reading your various bullying pieces, danah. A question, if you have the answer: what do I do as a mother of a young child to learn how to help my child deal with social pressures as he gets older. Right now he’s just 2, and I can say, “Max hit you and that’s not okay. Hitting is not okay. You don’t hit Max back.” And I know that Max didn’t set out intentionally to hurt my son because he’s only 2 too. But I know full well that in just a few years kids may be hitting (or more subtly hurting) my kid with the *intention* of hurting him. How do I talk to my child about other kids doing hurtful things to him and that he should not retaliate — without him feeling completely powerless? If you have any resources or reference, I’d be grateful — because I sure haven’t seen any.

  2. Julia Birks

    Props to you (and Palfrey) for this insightful piece. LGBT bullying is a big deal for me, but I’m constantly impressed by the constancy you display in being and focusing on facts, even on what is clearly an issue that’s important to you. Love your blog, always insightful.

  3. Janice Taylor

    I love reading your blogs, thank you for your continuing to write on this issue. I appreciate the awareness campaigns and how many things are being brought to light not only in the US but also here in Canada. What is most baffling about this issue is we are trying to teach acceptance and understanding but we are using the same mechanism that created the division. It is nonsensical. If you are not with us, we are against you. Our entire political and entertainment systems here in Canada and in the US teach for and against. It is constant and has pervaded how our children behave. But make no mistake about it, parents are responsible to teach their children acceptance, compassion and understanding. Recently, my daughter who is 8 has been the victim of bullying and as parents we feel a certain amount of helplessness. Parents have become reactionary and emotionally vested instead of teachers, role models and visionaries for their children. You cannot instill healthy behaviours among children using fear and anti-bullying as a whole is about the “consequences”, the “fear”, “the reactions”. As a mother of course I wanted to go “mother bear” on the other little girl who is picking on my child. However, this was an opportunity for me to ask my daughter, why she thinks she is bullying? I asked her about being assertive to “stand up” to her. We talked about the other little girl’s symptoms where in the end my child felt sorry for the bully. She understood possible reasons why she was behaving the way she was. I know blasphemy, feel sorry for the mean girl on the playground. My daughter learned that however we interpret the reality to be in many cases it is not what it actually is. Her only job as a human being is to understand that people come from diverse situations and in many cases it is not her job to label them one way or another but it is her job to accept people. The same consistent lesson not only applies to “bullies” it applies to people who appear different than her. I tell her constantly we come in the vehicle we come in, Period. Underneath the hood we are ALL the same. By no means does this mean she has to tolerate negative behaviour, she can be assertive with the behaviours and stop them but she must also feel sorry that this little girl is this sad to treat others this way. I teach her that although the “bullying” may hurt her right now when you take a step back you realize it most often has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the other child. There are dozens of reasons why children, all children behave the way they do. We can never fully know what is going on with another person and our desire to label any child regardless of what label we think they deserve, bully or otherwise, is nonsensical. Children to not have the capacity of understanding yet to know when it is right/wrong. What is interesting for us as parents is we must understand both sides of the coin. If I do not attempt to understand and feel compassion for why the bully is the bully, how do I expect the bully to understand why my child is the way she is? It is a two way street and unfortunately the current campaigns teach more division, more for and against and miss the entire boat to teach acceptance. We want to prosecute the bully, damn her to a life of misery, pull the rug out, make her suffer like my child has suffered. This is wrong on every single level! When we look at bullying behaviours as symptoms and just as symptoms we can remove our emotions for the desire to conquer and divide. Because the symptoms are overt and can hurt other people we think they are crimes. When looking at school age children (not adults), these overt symptoms can be the most desperate so they should be treated as desperate attempts for the child to be seen, to be heard, to have control. It is my constant job to teach her what friendship looks like, how to be a good friend, how to be compassionate. It is not my job to teach her to hate bullies, to teach division, because that lesson has no limits and no boundaries and will spin out of control. Evidence can be seen in the current literature on bullying campaigns, since all of them have started, bullying stats as of today: 1 in 4 children are bullied online, 1 in 7 kids will experience bullying on school yards almost daily, every 42 seconds a youth attempts to kill themselves. Teach Friendship, bottom line. Just Be Friends is my life’s work and life’s motto. For reference: I am founder and creator of Just Be where women and kids(very soon) find, make and be friends. We have core values and behaviours of how we as adults behave. If we can’t get along, how can we expect our kids to behave?

  4. Michael Brown

    danah –

    I’ve been a follower of your blog posts for some time now and very much appreciate all your insights! I’ve also enjoyed reading through yoru research works qutie a bit. As the champion of our internal social business platform at JPMorgan Chase, and as a father of 3 school aged children, i’m continually fascinated with the way people have taken to social business / computing as a way to better engage in the workplace and within our education system as well.

    This particular post, however, really hit home. My eldest is a sophomore in high school, and has had the opportunity to play a lead in a play that was written by a local chicago playwright and the father of one of the cast members. It deals with the topic of bullying from a very interesting perspective – a classroom of ‘gifted’ kids in high school. They’re now taking the show on the road to schools in the Chicago area as an education piece to get provide a new way to engage students in discussion and dialogue about this important topic. You’ve done an outstanding job bringing the subject to the forefront of your readers! Thank you!

    For information take a look at
    Thought you’d enjoy it!

  5. Elizabeth Pyatt

    Thank you for following this information and presenting us with multiple perspectives. I agree that it’s easy to villify a bully, but difficult to recognize when we have been the perpetrators.

    An interesting activity I worked on for a social media workshop was to create fake Facebook accounts for a modern day Cinderella and her step sisters. When “Cindy” was talking with her friends she was NOT afraid to be the mean girl about her sisters. It’s a rare version of Cinderella that allows the sisters to come together and work through their issues. Instead the step sisters are mocked by the audience and often seen as subhuman and become the victims of our revenge fantasies.

  6. Janet Bissett

    Bullying is even going on in elementary school. I teach 2nd grade, and am doing my best to educate my children on the importance of being kind to each other. I am only one teacher in a little corner of the world, but I am doing my part with the children I am in contact with. I teach them that their character is far more important to me than how well they can read or write. Sure, I am a strong academic teacher, but all of that is useless if they grow up to be mean and even worse, criminals. It is up to teachers and parents to teach children exactly what bullying is. Now that we are in the digital age, children and teens need to be educated about cyber bullying, as well. We have a huge responsibility.

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