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

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

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