You Say Bullying, I Say Drama

September 19, 2012
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Research & Studies, Students

What do we know about cyberbullying—I mean really know? We know it happens, of course. There are too many recent tragedies to count. But why, and more important, what do teens think about it? And what are the best solutions to eliminating it?

Justin Reich, director of online community, practice, and research at Facing History and Ourselves, wants the research community to spend more time in the classroom talking with teachers and students to better understand this hurtful, harmful, phenomenon.

In a recent Education Week blog post, Reich and fellow researchers Carrie James of Harvard’s GoodPlay project, which explores the digital ethics of young users, and Katie Davis, who is a faculty member at the University of Washington’s iSchool, point out some misconceptions about bullying, as well as point to areas where researchers should shine their light. Reich draws on the work of Anne Collier of to lay out what we know so far. It’s a helpful read.

What struck me was the term itself: bullying, or cyberbullying in the online version. Kids don’t use it. “Cyberbullying,” he writes, “has a nice ring to it, but it's problematic in a few ways. One of which is that teens just don’t call it bullying.”

And if kids don’t call it bullying, how successful will our efforts be in combatting it if teens don’t recognize—or don’t want to recognize it-- what it is adults are talking about?

As media scholar danah boyd has said:

I’ve spent the last seven years talking to youth about bullying and drama and it nearly killed me when I realized that all of the effort that adults are putting into anti-bullying campaigns are falling on deaf ears and doing little to actually address what youth are experiencing.

Teens don’t use the term “bully” or “bullying,” she and co-researcher Alice Marwick have found, because it means they have to think of themselves as a victim. And in the teen world, becoming a victim isolates and hurts even more.

Instead, she says, they lump bullying in with what they call “drama.”

Teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something. Repeatedly, teenagers would refer to something as ‘just stupid drama,’ ‘something girls do,’ or ‘so high school.’ … They can save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as desperate for attention.

Parents and teachers, boyd says, want to focus on the victimhood—label it, cure it. But doing so puts teens in a tough spot. And when teens do admit to being a victim, that’s often when adults let them down. The hard work of repairing emotional damage is hard and slow, and teens often feel abandoned.

More effective, boyd says, is to change the culture of the school. Reward positive, hold up strength, empower youth to be good citizens, online and off.

Interventions must focus on positive concepts like healthy relationships and digital citizenship rather than starting with the negative framing of bullying. The key is to help young people feel independently strong, confident and capable without first requiring them to see themselves as either an oppressed person or an oppressor.

As Anne Collier has said, it’s not so much about stopping the aggression, but more so about fostering an empathetic school atmosphere.

And it shouldn’t be a one-off proposition. “If your plan for addressing cyberbullying in your school is an assembly, you probably don't have a good plan,” Reich points out.

In that sense, maybe Lady Gaga and her Born This Way Foundation have it right. They’re seeking to “foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.”

And lest we forget, Reich reminds us,  “It's actually really important that most kids are not bullies” and that we remind them of that. In one study, after advertising high rates of non-bullying in schools, the schools saw a decrease in bullying behavior. “The theory is that if you tell kids that most kids are being nice to each other, the rest will,” Reich said.

Anne Collier reports back from the field on Karen Siris, a Long Island, NY, principal who is working to create that very culture. She and her team developed a program that involved creating a “Caring Majority” of “upstanding” students. The program created a “culture and climate” in the school district that embraced the belief that developing social and emotional understanding is at the heart of bullying prevention.

We here at Common Sense Media are doing our small part to bolster digital literacy in schools to improve the culture online and (hopefully) offline as well. Folks at the Harvard GoodPlay Project are working on similar efforts. In fact, our curriculum draws on that rich body of research.

Our “Standing Up, Not Standing By” free toolkit on bullying and our list of resources from others focus on building that empathy among students (and teachers) and cultivating a positive atmosphere in and out of school. We feature students themselves talking about “drama” in a series videos that teachers can use in their classrooms; we offer suggestions for sparking discussion, and other interactive options.

But it’s not enough. We need continued research (and better media coverage) of this important topic. We cannot lose another child to senseless “drama.”

More: Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project put together this presentation, available on SlideShare, featuring research from Pew, the UNH’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, Internet Solutions for Kids and professors Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin. The presentation covers differences between cyberbullying and internet harassment and notes that bullying still happens more offline - at school - than online.

Reich, Marwick, Collier, and James recently held a free webinar titled "Cyberbullying- What's Different, and What's Not, about Meanness and Cruelty Online" that you can watch online here. This is the first in a series of webinars directed toward educators who have recently watched the documentary Bully with their students. Reich says future webinars look into creating “cultures of kindness,” both in the classroom and at the school district level. Looks like the next one is scheduled for tonight at 7pm EST. Register here. And for more tips and tricks to nurturing a compassionate school culture, check out our free cyberbullying toolkit for educators.