Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Does Bullying Rhetoric Miss The Mark?

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | September 23, 2011 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Alice Marwick, bullying, cyberbullying, Danah Boyd, Microsoft, New York Times

There's an interesting New York Times op-ed this morning by two researchers, Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick, who have conducted research over a number of years, interviewing and observing teenagers across the United States.

Given the public interest in cyberbullying, we asked young people about it, only to be continually rebuffed. Teenagers repeatedly told us that bullying was something that happened only in elementary or middle school. "There's no bullying at this school" was a regular refrain.

This didn't mesh with our observations, so we struggled to understand the disconnect. While teenagers denounced bullying, they -- especially girls -- would describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as "drama."

The researchers originally thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of "drama." But they began to realize the two are distinct, and that "drama" is a protective mechanism, designed to diminish its importance, to save face and to distance themselves from a disempowering situation.

Youngs adults do not want to be seen as victims or perpetrators, as the serious emotional and social consequences are something they are ill-equipped to deal with. They want to see themselves as in control of their own lives, and the "bullying" narrative often makes them feel weak and childish.

But if the goal is to intervene at the moment of victimization, the focus should be to work within teenagers' cultural frame, encourage empathy and help young people understand when and where drama has serious consequences. 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.

If this research is accurate, then groups doing anti-bullying work should consider reframing the narrative to explain to young people that what they perceive as merely "drama" can have dangerous consequences, and showing them how to access support systems that will allow them to address the problem without feeling weak and childish. This research should be followed up and replicated to determine whether it presents an effective means of intervening in situations before it's too late.


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Annette Gross Annette Gross | September 23, 2011 9:44 AM

How enlightening! Thank you Jillian. Same situation but another way to look at it and deal with it. I remember being on both sides of this issue when I was in junior and senior high school. Of course, we didn't use the term "bullying" back then. But we did "tease" girls we thought were different or not up to our "standards.". And I was also the receiver of scorn from other girls who didn't like me. Whatever those girls said to me, I took to heart and carried it with me for years. I couldn't even say now if I would call it bullying. Perhaps it is the embarrassment of being treated badly by the "popular" girls. And you see how I and my friends who were also treated this way turned around and did the same thing to other girls? It's like the perpetuation of abuse. So you are absolutely correct - we have to talk to the kids in their language so they will learn respect of others and how dangerous it can be to keep engaging in these dramas.

The psychologists might fish around for the most effective term ... but I would think they also would want to ask some specific questions that would identify bullying from a functional standpoint, such as:

• Do you have unpleasant interactions with any of your peers to the point that you avoid them out of fear?

• Do any of your schoolmates treat you so badly that on some days you wish you didn't have to show up at school at all?

• Do you ever experience nightmares, or nausea, or other physical symptoms because of unpleasant social interactions at school?

• Do unpleasant social interactions cause you repeatedly to feel bad about being who you are?

That type of thing ... because whatever we or the kids call it, it is the bad psychological consequences that we are really trying to avoid -- as well as teaching good social skills, tools, and attitudes for adulthood.

FYI, danah boyd writes (and prefers to have written) her name with no caps. Even her academic articles are published with no caps.