"Bullying" means very little to teenagers

Once again, social media guru, Danah Boyd, has forced me to revisit and rethink an issue that I held for so long to be one of black and white in nature: teenage bullying. Once again we, as educators and parents, may not have our collective finger on the pulse of the morphing young adults that we so often believe we possess. And it’s not about Facebook either…
Bullying. As teachers and parents we seem to be missing the boat on this issue. But truth be told, that while we may define ‘bullying’ a specific way, our students are defining it it quite differently. Bullying has become mainstream, in that students don’t shy away from addressing the issue, but rather the do so in different terms.

After many casual conversations with young adults, Boyd discovered “that bullying was when someone picked on someone or physically hurt someone who didn’t deserve it.” What teachers and parents considered bullying our teenagers viewed it more as playground justice; a vigilantism of sorts.

There is also a set of unwritten rules at work here; an implied sort of methodology that is at play in these sorts of situations. Boyd learned “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.” Apparently, there’s a sort of ingrained, subconscious understanding of the situation at deeper level than what one sees at the superficial.

A dear colleague, and astute observer of human nature, noted that it is not so much an issue of bullying but rather,
the snarky remarks, the whispered reactions and eye rolls to another student’s comment that I notice in my classes. I’m willing to bet that not one of the “perps” would consider herself a bully. I do think it’s more overt now. Back in the day, kids would wait until they were out of class with friends to “report” what they saw as a social faux pas. Now, they don’t even try to conceal their disdain, or contempt, or whatever it is they are feeling and expressing. It’s certainly interesting to watch from the front of the room. Finally, I notice boys are much more subtle about their reactions. What Boyd says about “fronting” seems true, in my experience.
And Boyd is also astute in noting that the problem is not technology (OK Facebook you’re off the hook for now) but empathy–or rather a lack thereof. The lack of empathy has become insidious and growing exponentially. From her blog, Apophenia she writes:
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.
One can’t help but feel that we need to reframe the age old ‘bullying’ argument that pervades the discussions in our secondary schools. And Boyd seems to agree:
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.
When I see issues of bullying I always seem to return to a powerful influence of Gordon Neufeld and the importance of attachment with our children (teenagers, too!). Both as parents and as teachers I’m all for helping our young folk develop a culture of respect spiced with a greater sense of empathy. Of course, the trade-off is, well…spending more quality time with our children/students. Sadly, in our go-go busy familial and professional lives many of us are not prepared to travel down that road. At any cost.

As educators and as parents, no matter in which direction we collectively continue to address the issues of bullying, we must begin to recognize that there is a new attitude (or paradigm) pervading western society. The idea of what we once defined a bullying, is one much different from those held by our teenage students. And of course, this changes the whole dynamics about how we define, prevent, and reduce bullying. This changes the game.

It’s time to rethink our approach, time to get a greater perspective, and time to ask our teenagers for help…

What are we afraid of anyway?

The truth may hurt, I’m afraid. But at least it’s honest kind of hurt.

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