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Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Words Matter: Bullying terminology and its effects on the conversation

Bullying is a loaded term. It is defined differently depending on circumstances, the role a person plays in an incident, age and experience. It can also be polarizing and a conversation-ender. How then do we discuss bullying without destroying the dialogue before it starts? In a recent student survey we chose to get at the issues surrounding bullying by asking questions using a variety of terms and circumstances. Instead of only asking if a student had experienced cyberbullying, we also asked if he or she had ever gotten in an argument using technology. In addition, we asked if students had ever teased others using technology or if they had been embarrassed, upset or uncomfortable by something that occurred online. What was most striking in our survey results, was that the more vaguely we defined the behavior, the more kids admitted to having experienced it. "Have you ever been bullied online?" received a 9% response in the affirmative. But watch the numbers grow for our other questions:
  • Have you ever made fun of, harassed, or messed with someone by email, text, etc 16%
  • Have you ever received an email, text, IM or comment that made you angry, hurt, embarrassed or upset? 37%
  • Have you ever gotten in an argument via text, email, online, etc? 47%.

Now, does getting in an argument constitute bullying? Not necessarily. And in virtually every classroom where we presented our survey results, there was visible discomfort in the kids when the word "bullying" came up. We got several comments like, "what do you MEAN by bullying?" What is it? For the past several months in the media, much has been shared about the extreme consequences of unchecked bullying, and we have had the sad misfortune of hearing seemingly endless reports of teen suicides and criminal consequences for extreme behavior. However, when talking to our 8th graders, for example, we wanted them to think not just about the end result of bullying in these cases, but all the little steps that led to such tragic consequences. How does bullying start? How do we recognize it?  If statistics that say "less than 50% of kids who are bullied will tell an adult" are correct, how do we help our kids reach out to those that can help them when they are unable to handle it on their own?

Looking at the broader issue of relational aggression is one way to approach modeling and teaching skills to young people. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors of the book Nurture Shock have written extensively about parenting methods relating to relational aggression (see Chapter 9).  Modeling ways to handle conflict between adults is an important step. I think we can all agree that the saying, "do as I say, not as I do," simply isn't realistic. If we handle conflicts in ways that promote problem solving, civility and respect, young people will be more likely to do the same.

Discussing issues surrounding bullying before they occur is another method that works. We would never wait to explain the proper way to cross the street until someone was injured. We explain and demonstrate and role play with young people all the time. We can do the same with bullying. Talk about the different roles in a potential bullying incident. Discuss the smaller incidents that might lead to bullying, and don't label an argument, a mean email or text as bullying immediately. Those smaller incidents might combine to create a situation that warrants the label, but even if they don't, students need to know how to react. Role play with young people strategies for handling situations if they are a victim, accused of bullying and, most importantly, a bystander. Knowing what to do as a bystander and feeling empowered to do something about it may be one of the most important skills we can teach. It is almost always the case that a peer can influence behavior more rapidly than that of an adult.

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