“Whatever you do don’t tell the teachers, they just make it worse.”
I’ll always remember this line. It was written in a fake advice letter that a student was writing in response to fake problem letter written by another student. In the problem letter, the student had talked about how lonely she was, and how students were making fun of her on Facebook. Part of the advice letter included the words of wisdom written above.
There was no doubt in my mind where this came from. There had been an incident just the previous week where students had been called together to talk about Facebook bullying. This was the result of a student complaining that someone had done a post about them that was mean, and that several other students joined in. There were resulting assemblies and meetings, both whole grade and with the students involved. And at the end of it all, well, I don’t know about the others, but at least one student felt that this effort was simply going to “make it worse.”
I’ve made other attempts to discuss bullying with students, which is generally met with a “that doesn’t happen here” response, which, quite frankly, is pretty hard to believe. So reading Danah Boyd’s article “Bullying has Little Resonance with Teenagers” had plenty of resonance for me. Bullying is this word that is parroted about by the adults as the big bad bugaboo, and yet students sit there and don’t feel it applies to their own lives. Not only that, but they get annoyed by the adults’ insistence that this is happening to them, and wish that the adults, who just don’t get it, would just stop talking about it.
So with the context of cyberbullying, we are using a word whose meaning is nebulous to the students at the best of times. The teasing statements between friends and acquaintances are no longer little soundbites that emerge and disappear into memory, but rather are imprinted in text for many to read, including those whom perhaps were never supposed to read it. I once saw a saved Facebook thread with a bunch of negative comments that students had written about their principal. I am positive that those students never even considered that I would eventually be able to read those comments, despite not being invited into the group, or even shown it by any students involved. Yet I eventually saw it. They think these actions are private and they’re not. As Boyd said, it just brings the behavior more out in the open. They think they are just having fun, indulging their lowest feelings in a new and intriguing way, and little considering any harm that may come from it, because the person or people they are harming are not in front of them. They don’t even have to watch the impact of their statements in person.
The part in the article that really struck me is how teenagers (and probably adults) think that you should always be able to tell if someone is “messing with you.” That you should not take these things seriously, and if you do you’re “stupid.” Yet teenagers (and adults) are very sensitive, and as Boyd states clearly “the do misinterpret when people are messing with them. And they do take minor social infractions personally. And then things escalate.” What is seen as simple retaliation by one, might be seen as victimizing by the other. And so it goes…
Perhaps it’s time to reign back the use of the word bully, so that it is no longer an overused bugaboo, but a hard hitting word that is saved for its ultimate meaning (as far as I know it)–the repeated intentional effort to harm someone either emotionally or physically. Instead, focus with the students on empathy, walking around a situation and seeing things from everyone’s point of view. Keep discussions going about the situations that are basically bullying, but perhaps leave the bugaboo word out and the empathy in.
In addition, as Boyd points out, the media’s dramatization of bad behavior by adults is not helping. So perhaps some pointed discussions about what is seen in the media would be another starting point for raising awareness about where these behaviors are coming from. To let them know that these dramas that are displayed for them may be funny and entertaining, yet it is probably not the wisest thing to use as role models for our own behavior. This is where teachers must rise to the challenge of modeling the behavior that they wish to see in their students, and remember that misinterpretation can happen anywhere, even between them and their students. We would all be wise to take care with our speech and actions.