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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bias and Bullying

I'm a few weeks overdue with this apologies!

October 14, during the PNAIS Fall Educators' Conference, I had the opportunity to attend a "Bias and Bullying" session led by Rosetta Lee of the Seattle Girls School. Given the work we do with kids around digital citizenship, my personal interest in bias and messages in the media, and as a representative of our school's Diversity Committee, I really wanted to hear her speak. I was not disappointed! Links to Rosetta Lee and the break-out session contain all of her many resources, so I would encourage you to follow them. I don't plan to hash out her entire presentation, mostly because I don't think I can, but I will bring attention to a few key things that I thought were important enough to write down, though my attention was much more on participating than note-taking. Overall, the goal of the session was to help us see bias in our everyday interactions with each other, learn where the cycles of bias come from, and how to address bias and bullying when we see it.

Thing 1
Bullying and bias are closely interrelated. Check out the slides at the beginning of the presentation that show the cycles of systematic oppression (slides 5 & 6). Ms. Lee talked us through slide 5, where "stereotypes become prejudice, prejudice becomes discrimination, discrimination becomes oppression, and oppression becomes internalized oppression" using gender bias as a model. I didn't write down every stage of the cycle (kicking myself now, I was too busy nodding my head and thinking, "THAT sounds familiar!"), but we arrived at systematic oppression with the example of a study showing how men and women are promoted for jobs. Men, it was found, were promoted on the PROMISE of greatness, where women were promoted on the PROOF of greatness. What began as a stereotype of "men are more suited to _____ profession," became an institutionalized policy of promotion inequality. That becomes internalized when women don't even bother trying to get promotions because they don't think they'll get them anyway. I'm oversimplifying here, and perhaps completely botching the story, but that's the gist of it.

The cycle of bullying is much the same, with social capital and power as the centerpiece. "Bullying is about limiting a person's potential and choice in the world," Ms. Lee said.  It's about power and influence.

Jump ahead quickly to slide 9 where Ms. Lee references the 15-15-70 dynamic. Fifteen percent of all people believe stereotypes are true, 15% don't ever believe them, and 70% are on the fence, and will most likely follow those who are the loudest. The largest group, in the middle, has the potential to have the most influence, power or voice, but we tend to follow the 15% on the extremes because they make more noise and draw more attention.

Apply this same dynamic to bullying by looking at bullies, victims, and bystanders. Rosetta Lee uses the terms agent, target, and ally, which I love and am completely borrowing from now on. A full 85% live in the bystander/ally camp, yet many of our anti-bullying campaigns focus on the agent and the target. We already know this isn't very effective because it requires that kids see themselves as mean, or conversely, as powerless. And they just won't go there. In the 15-15-70 dynamic, once again, the largest group has the potential to be the loudest voice and effect real change, so that should naturally be where our focus lies, rather than addressing the bully or victim all the time.  Programs or discussions that empower the bystanders stand a great chance of being successful.

This doesn't mean that change is easy or will be pain-free, but a substantial group of people have the "opportunity to cut a new path." (She used a brilliant carving-a-new-path-through-the-brush metaphor here...following the existing path [of least resistance] is easy, and the first time cutting a new path you're going to get scratched up, but you have the opportunity to find a better way.) Imagine if the 85% felt empowered to find that better path, and had the influence really get it done. The culture of a school, or any group for that matter, could change to one of caring and acceptance, clearly sending a message that negative, mean behaviors are not tolerated.

Thing 2
Sam and I recently talked about the power of words with students, sharing with them some findings from an MTV/AP Poll about slurs online. Kids often use derogatory remarks around their friends because there is a culture of acceptance around those who know each other well.
When the question is asked broadly, half of young people say using discriminatory words is wrong. But 54 percent think it's OK to use them within their own circle of friends, because "I know we don't mean it." And they don't worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble. (Seattle Times, 9/20/11)
During Rosetta Lee's session, we had time to participate in two different activities, "Who's on the Inside/Outside?" and "Have You Heard? Put-Downs and Isms." Wish I'd had the put-downs and isms activity when we were talking to students back in September. I'd like to try it out in the future, as it went right along with the discussion of offensive language online. First, we were asked to make a list of the slurs we had heard recently, and I must say my ears were opened to few new ones I hadn't heard before. Yikes. Second, we were asked to try to identify the "ism" to which the slur related. For example, "that's so ghetto" reflects racism; "that's so gay" -- heterosexism; "that's retarded" -- ableism; "stop being such a girl" -- sexism. The put downs are connected to these societal isms, and whether you mean it or not, these words have power, and they help perpetuate the stereotypes. If you're wondering just how powerful the words can be, Ms. Lee suggests you insert your own name in there instead of the put-down. "That's so Holly," or "you're being such a Holly," or "you look like such a Holly," said with the same inflection as these put-downs, doesn't sound so nice and starts to hurt. If we don't challenge the societal norms, things stay the same. So what is a kid/teen to do? Ms. Lee's advice:
  1. describe the behavior
  2. tell them how it made you feel
  3. request a different outcome
This is extremely hard to do in reality, but modeling and practicing "When you _____, I felt ____" could help.  In our discussions with kids, we've asked the questions as if kids are giving advice to someone else. What would you tell a friend in this situation? What would you do if you saw something like this [bullying] happening to someone else? This starts the conversation, however, it's much harder to find the words when it's happening directly to you and your feelings have been crushed. Do I have the strength to say something? If I ignore it, will it just go away? Will it get worse? "When you _____, I felt ____" could be used as an actual script, giving kids the words they need to help themselves out of a situation.

Carving the new path might lead to a few scrapes and bruises the first few times, but if enough people follow (and there are 70-85% who might!), it becomes the new path of least resistance, and behaviors can change.

Thing 3
On October 20th, the Oprah Winfrey Network aired "Miss Representation," a new documentary  recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. The trailer contains some rather graphic images, so I've linked to it rather than embedding it here. As a mother of two young girls I am very concerned about messages the media are sending to/about women. Having spent time in Rosetta Lee's session, and having felt and observed the impact of gender bias myself, I plan to see the film and digest the message it sends. I'm no film critic, but I'll happily share my review here. Have you already seen it? Share your thoughts, please!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How Do We Talk to Kids About Bullying? For Starters, Don't Call it Bullying.

A few weeks ago, another teen suicide...another child bullied and tormented to the point where he thought he had no way out.

No more, please. NOT. ONE. MORE.

Last week, Microsoft researchers Alice Marwick and danah boyd published Bullying as True Drama: Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark in the New York Times. Also, with their colleagues at the Social Media Collective, they published The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric complete with links to a research paper on teen "drama" in networked publics. First, let me say that we are so grateful to have this resource as we fine tune our talks with students and the activities or sessions that address digital citizenship. These are tough topics, and research has shown that few, if any, "anti-bullying" programs are having a noticeable effect. Why not? A notable quote:
For most teenagers, the language of bullying does not resonate. When teachers come in and give anti-bullying messages, it has little effect on most teens. Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive. (Marwick & boyd, 2011)
Honestly, what teen (or what person, for that matter) would want to acknowledge that they are powerless? Or hurtful to others? Especially in front of a group of peers?

Last year when we surveyed our students about their online behavior, we asked purposefully vague questions about getting in arguments or "messing with" someone online. We had already learned how quickly conversations shut down, or become distinctly uncomfortable, the moment the B word comes into play. A few weeks ago, we spent time with 11th and 8th grade students. We asked them ahead of time to share with us (anonymously) some "tech ethical" dilemmas they might have experienced, and then as we shared some scenarios with the groups, we asked students to try and "give advice" or offer suggestions as to how they might handle any of these situations. Not surprisingly, after our initial overview and introductions, the mood of the room palpably changed the moment we started talking about real behaviors, many of which could be classified as mean, hurtful, or aggressive. do we realistically and effectively talk about this issue in a way that a) doesn't shut everybody down or b) leads kids to simply say what they think adults want to hear?

Well, as we suspected, and as the research now makes clear, language matters. The way adults talk about behavior is very different from the way teens talk about it. From the research paper's abstract:
While teenage conflict is nothing new, today's gossip, jokes, and arguments often play out through social media like Formspring, Twitter, and Facebook. Although adults often refer to these practices with the language of "bullying," teens are more likely to refer to the resultant skirmishes and their digital traces as "drama..." [This allows them to] retain agency - and save face - rather than positioning themselves in a victim narrative...Understanding how "drama" operates is necessary to recognize teens' own defenses against the realities of aggression, gossip, and bullying in networked publics. (Marwick & boyd, 2011)
So what, exactly, is the difference between drama and bullying? To adults, not much. To teens, however, there are clear distinctions. One girl cited in the study defines drama in a "bidirectional" manner, saying "there's two sides fighting back," whereas bullying is one-sided and directed. If you defend yourself, it's no longer bullying because you are now participating. "Unlike bullying, there are no victims in teens' model of drama. To avoid drama, teens are expected to simply refuse to participate, while it's assumed that they cannot avoid being bullied."

As I read through this research paper, I could hear the dialog of "drama" in my head, and I even remember students using the word when telling stories, as in, "oh that's just drama." Sam and I both knew that the language of cyberbullying wasn't getting through, that bullying was starting to get equated with tragedy. The more frequently stories appeared in the media about teens driven to desperate actions because of bullying, the more kids were able to say, "We don't see THAT kind of behavior online. THAT is really mean," as if true bullying had to end with a national news story. My questions to them became, then, "does bullying have to equal suicide? How did it get there? What were all the little behaviors along the way that, when added together, became something unmanageable and unbearable? When did it cross the line? Where is that line?" While this stream-of-consciousness reasoning made perfect sense to me, and connected the dots between bullying and drama in my mind, it still wasn't effective with the kids. Though I knew that on some level, or more accurately I could feel it, Alice Marwick and danah boyd's research now gives me the language to understand it more thoroughly. Labeling a series of text messages, Facebook updates, and rumors as drama allows a teen to "save face by minimizing the conflict's impact, rather than seeing [one]self as a victim."
Dismissing a conflict that’s really hurting their feelings as drama lets teenagers demonstrate that they don’t care about such petty concerns. They can save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as desperate for attention. Or, if they’re the instigators, the word drama lets teenagers feel that they’re participating in something innocuous or even funny, rather than having to admit that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Drama allows them to distance themselves from painful situations. (NYT, 9/22/11)
Wow. I'm starting to feel like we all need advanced degrees in psychology to really get this. On a purely personal and emotional level, I remember how drama feels and completely understand a teen's reluctance to wear the mantle of victim or mean girl. Furthermore, I think this personal connection to the behaviors is what makes most adults so intolerant and/or dismissive. We write off these incidents as petty and ridiculous even more quickly as adults than we did as teens. "I survived, so can you" is one typical reaction, but it sends a message that we are unwilling to listen and acknowledge kids' feelings. How does that genuinely help our kids in the here and now? What opportunities for growth and learning are we missing? How do we build empathy and understanding?

One group receiving attention, by many anti-bullying programs, has been bystanders. Particularly if kids are unwilling to see themselves as bullies or victims, we can talk about what to do when you are the third part in this equation...the person watching it happen. "Don't stand by, stand up!" has become a new catchphrase, and Common Sense Media has added a 4th group to the mix of bullies, victims, and bystanders: UPstanders. I've noticed even CSM refers to cyberbullying as "online cruelty" in their lesson plans in an attempt to use language that kids understand and relate to. MTV's A Thin Line campaign has taken a similar approach. (see video above)

Is this all just semantics? Do the words we use really make a difference? Our experience shows that words matter. And when it comes to talking with our kids about their behavior, both online and in the real world, the more tools we have at our disposal the better. Though we were all teenagers once, our perspectives naturally change as we mature, and we can forget what it's like to be dealing with this stuff on a daily basis (or, sometimes we're just grateful to have the hard work of being a teenager behind us and we don't want to relive it). Lumping all this behavior into one convenient category and labeling it "bullying" is closing the door on meaningful conversation. Get kids talking and you may very well hear them describing behaviors most adults would recognize as bullying. But be aware of what that label may cost a teenager. It means feeling like a victim, or the bully. Marwick and boyd say, "They do not want to see themselves as victims or as aggressors, but as mature individuals navigating their world competently."

We have to find a way, and the language, to help them do that.

Marwick, Alice E. and boyd, danah, The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics (September 12, 2011). A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, September 2011. Available at SSRN:

More resources cited in this post:
Bullying as True Drama, NYT 9/22/11

The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric, danah boyd | apophenia

Social Media Collective - "The Social Media Collective is a group of researchers at Microsoft Research New England, led by Dr. danah boyd. The collective consists primarily of social scientists and humanists looking to understand how social media is shaping and is shaped by society."

Common Sense Media

A Thin Line

Larry Magid's article,
Cyberbullying Is a Serious Problem, but Is It an Epidemic? suggests "exaggeration can increase risk." Great advice in this article.

Should We Rethink Our Anti-Bullying Strategy?
Meredith Melnick, Time Online, 9/28/11