Spotlight on: Bullying

English: A Bully Free Zone sign - School in Be...

English: A Bully Free Zone sign – School in Berea, Ohio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading some articles lately which led me to think about bullying. These thoughts became more pragmatic when I was made an admin of a social-network discussion group. Incidentally, the group is composed of some six dozen adults between ages twenty and sixty, but with the media spotlight on gay teen suicides, and the cases of cyber-bullying motivated suicides my mind turned to teenagers and young adults.

It’s easy to dismiss bullying as a “kids will be kids” issue; to assume bullies have bad parents, or that victims of bullying are coddled too much; or to assume that bullies and victims of bullying constitute two distinct groups where no one child can be both. However, I’d like to contend that a critical examination of bullying–the only kind of examination which will give us the tools to combat the issue–recognizes the complexity of children, parents, and the nature of bullying itself.

The ‘kids will be kids’ defense falls apart as soon as we consider that it is during childhood that children learn (or don’t learn, as being an admin has shown me) skills like appropriate communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Kids shouldn’t be excused for being disrespectful, they should be taught to be respectful. If ad hominem is to be unacceptable in the workplaces and public discourse platforms of tomorrow, it must be unacceptable in the classrooms and playgrounds of today.

Assuming that bullies have poor parents, or bullying victims have coddling parents is simplistic for a number of reasons. Firstly, a variety of pressures outside the home can lead children to bully others–such as being the victims of bullying in other social spheres, causing some children to assert dominance whenever and wherever they have the opportunity. To assume that victims of bullying have parents who coddle them strikes me as a form of victim blaming–the controlling idea is that there is something wrong with the child (presumably caused by the parents) which makes them either an easy target or thin skinned. Both arguments assume that parents have absolute control over their child’s behavior, which any parent will tell you, they do not.

(Every time I hear someone say something like, “The parents should have done something,” or “The parents were obviously absent/didn’t know what was going on.” I want to ask what? What should they or could they have done? Sometimes this question yields useful responses, most of the time it reveals a ‘not my kid,’ attitude which often stagnates problem solving.)

Bullying is not a straight-forward behavior. Classroom vigilantism–an unsanctioned attempt to protect weaker social peers–can easily devolve into, or be interpreted as bullying. What seems like bullying to one authority figure may not seem so to another. Bullying is often also mistaken for typical fighting and bickering to administrators who do understand the social power-dynamics at play in a given situation.

Here are some materials I’ve run across lately which discuss bullying, intimidation, and shaming, in ways I find to be particularly productive:

Bully” (2011)

  • Readily available on Netflix, this documentary by Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen honestly and unadornedly explores peer-to-peer bullying by following the experiences of three teens and one family touched by teen suicide. It avoids narration, sweeping music, and dark-room testimonials, and instead allows the subjects to speak in their own voices.
  • Most notable to me is how this film portrays not only victims of bullying but teens who are driven to bully by the hostility of other teens. It challenges the definition of ‘bully’ and highlights the complexity of teen relationships.
  • If you look at nothing else in this post I hope you will take the time to watch this documentary. It’s about an hour and a half long and worth every minute. 

Bullying and Teasing: No Laughing Matter (scholastic.com)

  • This article provides a valuable overview of bullying in the scholastic context, including it’s beginnings, effects, and warning signs. The article separates bullying into its three broadest categories of physical bullying, psychological bullying, and verbal bullying, and offers parents and teachers tools for recognizing and responding to bullying in the classroom and at home.

Defining Bully Down by Emily Bazelon

  • Succinctly (if not somewhat academically) addresses the complexity of bullying as a concept in her March 11, 2013 op-ed for the New York Times.
  • Razelon, a journalist, has been prolific on the issue of bullying. Some of her other work on bullying includes, “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy” (Random House, 2013), her Atlantic article How to Stop the Bullies, or her three part series “What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?” (available as a pdf download here) in which she explores bullying poignantly and complexly.

When bullying goes high-tech by Elizabeth Landau

  • Provides a useful overview of cyberbullying, it’s definition, scope, and the solutions being discussed. This is only an introduction to a fairly new issue, complexified by the pervasiveness of media and social networking (think Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Google+), free speech legislation, and the generally unregulated nature of the internet.

Sticks and Stones” Strip 1216 from xkcd

  • I just happen to really love this comic. This strip, combined with the mouse-over text, is particularly poignant. (Seriously, ALWAYS read the mouse-over text.)

Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on Social Media by Laura Hudson

  • Hudson addresses harassment not only within the victim-perpetrator binary, but the complex forms this takes when people decide to use shame as a weapon to discourage harassment. This article is especially useful because it addresses bullying among adults and within the realm of social media. It acknowledges that the bullying discussion needs to transcend classrooms and playgrounds, extending over the various forms of media which are second nature to nearly every westerner born after 1980 (more so the middle schoolers and high school students of the ‘childhood cellphone age’), and into the cubicle, the industry event, and convention hall.

Other resources are available at these websites:

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