Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Nothing" (A Blog About Bullying)

I watched it all unfold on Facebook. A comment by a teenager, directed at another teenager, that generated 22 comments and 8 "likes." Once I deduced the target wasn't my child (that's happened before), I realized the target was another child I know. A status of "Delete me off of facebook all you want honey, but try doing that in real life and you'll find out that I'll always keep showing up in your news feed" led to six other teenagers talking around the identity of the target. The comments included:

"she hides in a tree and swings from friend to friend w/no real home to go"

"Shes gay"

"dumb hoeee"

"she can't be gay if she likes bananas"

but the one that grieved me the most was this one:

"her name is [insert name here] absolutely nobody(:" (this comment was "liked" by two people)

This started b/c the target teen put a picture of herself taken with a tree as background as her Facebook profile, and two girls made snide comments about it, leading to the "monkey girl" designation and the theme of this string. The target then deleted the "friends" who had made the comment off of Facebook, leading to the "take me off all you want" status.

(One of the challenges of cyberbullying is that even if a teen "blocks" another teen or removes them as a friend, so many mutual acquaintances will be aware of what was said about them that it will be almost impossible for them to escape the knowledge that a negative message is being spread about them.)

My daughter had been one of a close foursome in eigth grade (she's in ninth now). She was the first one to leave the group, weary of being pressured to leave other people out. As such, she experienced similar treatment firsthand. When a second member of the foursome "left," and started experiencing the nastiness, that young woman said she understood now how horrific it feels to be the target (compared to the "power" of being a perpetrator). That leaves two of the original foursome and some upperclassmen siblings/friends who are functioning, to some degree, as the equivalent of puppeteers.

When the parent of the "target" child asked me to be involved, I agreed. We met with an MSW whose agency does some work with the school. We met with the principal, the school resource officer, and another staff member. The other staff member said, "Well, we don't let the kids use Facebook at school." I pointed out that with smartphones they do. In the bathrooms, wherever they can grab a moment. And that's not the point. 

It was important to me to impress upon the school administration that this isn't just about a couple of students getting their feelings hurt. (Everyone knows that the freshman year of high school is not a cakewalk; I don't expect it to be.) It is about a threat to school climate; it is about students who are engaging in behavior that goes beyond "name calling." It is name calling on hyperspeed - the "cyber" part of it is anonymous, spreads exponentially, and costs the perpetrator nothing while the target often descends an emotional and psychological downward spiral until they can develop the strength to "not let it matter."

(Although this blog focuses on cyberbullying, in my experience the ugliness isn't limited to social media; there is frequently in-person aggressive behavior as well.)

My MSW contact said her research unearthed a lot of ways to help the victim, but not so much on working with the perpetrator.

Here's what I would do. Tell the perpetrator that there is an exercise today about leadership, that as someone with a lot of social "pull" at the school they are needed to help make the school better. Hand them the transcript of one of these ugly threads (it's not hard to find one). Have the perpetrator role play the role of the kid saying the nasty comments TO ANOTHER KIDS' FACE. Reverse the roles and have the perpetrator be the "target" of THEIR OWN COMMENTS. I'd bet it feels a lot different in person than via keyboard.

I recently watched a Karmatube video about a man who took over a decrepit, forgotten, trash-filled wedge of Manhattan waterfront and made it a sanctuary for birds. He said, "people stopped dumping garbage here when they saw people had started to care."

Whatever emotional "garbage" leads teens to bully, I want them know people care. As a parent, I want these students who are engaging in such destructive behavior to have something positive happen in their lives to fill up whatever void causes them to perpetuate cruelty and meanness. I know them; they are attractive, talented, potential-filled young women (90% of relational aggression issues occur in females) who have so much to give.

The target kids are all special to me, likewise the bullies are, to me, anything but "nothing."

But the "monkeying around" has to stop.
Bullying Resources:

Cruel's Not Cool

Jodee Blanco (Jodee is a bullying survivor and author of "Please Stop Laughing at Me")

Article: How to Help a Bully: Recommendations for Counseling the Proactive Aggressor

ArticleWorking With Young People Who Bully Others

Resource: Facebook's New Bullying Report Rool (note: this is very new to me; I don't know anyone who has used it yet)


Jon said...

Like your approach as well as the resources you outine. We need to create those teaching moments before bullying happens. We need to teach our youth on how to make good choices with a leadership attitude and mindset. A big gap in today's world! Thanks for post.

Mary McManus said...

What a powerful post Paula. I have goosebumps. What a creative solution and so easy to execute. Just as the bullying goes viral so quickly, so too should this blog post!

Corinne Gregory said...

In this post, you help reinforce the point I keep making that the "cyber" part is just a nifty new tool that helps us hurt people bigger, better, and faster. What we have to deal with is the cultural and character underpinnings that help students (and adults, too) understand that we just do NOT treat people this way.

For more on the cultural part, I invite you to visit my blog on the topic at

- Corinne Gregory

Tough Cookie Mommy said...

Paula, as an educator, I have a front row seat to the dangers of cyber bullying. I'm not sure that most parents monitor the interactions that their children are having with their peers online. It is often not harmless or appropriate. I love the fact that you are proactive in monitoring your daughter's online activity. It certainly helps you to address bullying issues right away and to advocate on behalf of your child.

Teacher Girl said...

I really love that you are taking a pro-active approach to this problem and caring even when the problem extends beyond your own child. Many people don't realize just how bad the bullying online can be. Great job!

Shana Johnson said...

Loved the post! I re-posted on facebook. I'm glad you got involved. So many parents and adults don't, which leads to tragic results.

Helan said...

Thank you for this great post. It is so upsetting that cyberbullying has become a prevalent thing for teens to deal with. My daughter was a victim of cyberbullying from three girls in her class. She was able to find some ways of stopping the cyberbullying at This is a great resource for bullied teens as are the links that you posted!