Like most adults who work with teenagers, we’ve been thinking a lot about bullying lately, particularly in its electronic form, which has amplified the potential for harm through the internet’s anonymity, broad reach, and 24/7 access. The role of ‘cyberbullying’ in a recent spate of heartbreaking youth suicides has put us on high alert. Our diversion programs see many teenagers who have been involved in things like fighting, shoplifting in a group with other kids, or truancy-- the types of behavior that can be indicative of a bullying situation. We’ve gotten a number of inquiries over the past year from other agencies in New York City and beyond about the role of bullying in sending kids to youth court or to one of our alternative to detention programs. When we asked staff to identify cases of teens who were either a victim or perpetrator of bullying, however, no one could point to a specific case where bullying had been explicitly identified. The young people themselves aren’t talking about it. Given how many young people we work with, and the length of our engagement with many of them, the phenomenon seems odd.
Then, a few weeks back, this opinion piece in the New York Times caught our eye. The authors, researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick, discussed a similar phenomenon to the one we’d noted:
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.
What they found was that teenagers used the word “drama” instead to label a range of interpersonal conflicts, including bullying, of both the cyber and “live action” variety. The authors suggest that the teenagers they interviewed used the word “drama” as a way of reducing the importance of something (“just stupid drama”); the word served as a valuable protective mechanism to diminish the hurt some behavior can cause (both for the victim and the perpetrator): “Drama allows them to distance themselves from painful situations.” The authors conclude:
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. . . 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.
Interested in these ideas, we asked the members of the the Youth Justice Board if they had any reactions to this article. Here’s what Maya had to say:
Boyd and Marwick make a valid point about bullying among teenagers. The term is commonly used by adults but also by students in classroom settings or workshops dealing with spreading awareness of the issue. Students may use it in such environments when discussing what they feel bullying means to them , but because of its negative connotations, they prefer to phrase it in other ways outside of the classroom. In my own school, I have never experienced anybody acknowledge that they have been bullied when verbally abused.
The point made about drama as a means of undermining the seriousness of the issue is spot-on as well. Several weeks ago, I came upon an anonymously created Facebook profile page that insulted several young girls that attend my school or live in the surrounding area. The girls were called various names, pictures of them were uploaded with very offensive captions, and other people responded to the profile page encouragingly, addressing it as a funny way to highlight the flaws of these girls. The comments made by the victims of this tormenting were not very different. They gave the impression that these horrible "jokes" were made out of boredom or just out of jealousy. High school students have grown to believe that it is better to brush off verbal insults and other forms of bullying than allow it to bother them. I often witness "drama" in the hallways and I hear girls telling their close friends that they aren't bothered by what other people say about them but it is their expressions and evidently less enthusiastic behavior later throughout the day that show me otherwise.
And here is Toni’s take:
I completely agree with the article. Sometimes kids are too embarrassed to say they are being bullied or might think telling will make the bullying worse. Even the bullies themselves might not know that they are hurting someone’s feelings.
In my school, bullying does go on. Certain kids are made fun of because of the way they dress or their religion. Last year my cheerleading team promoted anti-bullying through STEP, advertising, and assembly. But that’s just in school. On social networks you can’t control what the person behind the screen does. People say harsh things and have no remorse. There should be consequences for cyberbullying on social network sites. I can’t imagine how someone would feel being judged and bullied every day with no support. Adults should talk to their kids about bullying because sometimes kids don’t know how to approach adults with personal problems. A victim of bullying is being judged every day, the last thing they want is to be judged by an adult also. If you go to your child first, they might open up to you.
What’s your perspective? We are going to continue having this conversation with youth in our programs, because it does seem like a place where reducing normative communication barriers between adults and teens can have a valuable impact.