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.