Bullying: According to Who?

Reading danah boyd‘s article “‘Bullying’ Has Little Resonance with Teenagers”I reflected on bullying I observed and experienced as a kid. I realized I didn’t label situations as ‘bullying’ or people as ‘bullies’. I remember behaviors of individuals and groups and the feelings those behaviors created. Just as the students that danah boyd interviewed, I would not have called those interactions that happened years ago ‘bullying’. It’s only in retrospect, that I realize the teasing and exclusion and gossip would be classified as ‘bullying’ and the culprits classified as ‘bullies’.  Perhaps that’s where we’re getting it wrong when we address bullying…whether it’s happening face to face or in cyber space. And I think that is the first step…not treating cyber bullying as a separate phenomenon and focusing on dealing with how we treat each other and how we help our students learn to deal with their relationships with others. danah boyd states, “… technology is not radically changing what’s happening; it’s simply making what’s happening far more visible.” So, in a way, technology has helped bring more attention to an issue that spans time and cultures.

I found the conversations ms. boyd had with teenagers and how their definition of bullying differed from adults enlightening. I thought of my own students and wonder about their own definition of bullying. In addition to the disconnect between the teenagers’ and adults’ perspectives, I starting thinking about differences in cultural perspectives regarding bullying. I’ve witnessed and heard of behavior among some of our students that could be classified as bullying but from a cultural perspective it could also been seen as ‘putting others in their place’.

In describing these bullying behaviors among teenagers, danah boyd suggests that “… the point is to show who has social power. It’s all about creating and reinforcing hierarchies.” If that’s the case I have students from cultures where hierarchy is very important and they feel justified, even obligated, in their treatment of others. We had a case this year where one of our teachers (of Korean descent) confronted a group of our Korean middle school girls  about their behavior as they established and reinforced what I can best describe as a ‘pecking order’ that is apparently part of their culture. The behaviors were causing huge issues since some of the Korean girls have spent many years in international schools and exposed to an environment where those behaviors were frowned upon. This situation also reminds me of bullying incidents I heard about when I was living in Japan many years ago. I heard a lot about the bullying issues rampant in Japanese schools that often were not addressed by the adults (educators and parents). And I learned of a Japanese saying “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” that some would say illustrates a strong belief in conformity which is upheld through peer pressure that appears to others as (or actually is) types of bullying.

So how do I connect this to technology? I don’t. At least not directly. I think technology is only one of the methods or tools individuals or groups use to harass and disparage others.  Just as I now believe 21st century skills are more about critical thinking than just technology,  I think we need to address bullying in any of its forms by looking at the causes and working with our students about how to deal with relationship on- and off-line. Digital citizenship should be addressed as part of citizenship in general, not a separate topic discussed in a technology class.As danah boyd concludes,

The issues here are systemic. And it’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem here. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle for attention, validation, and status. And unless we find effective ways of getting to the root of the problem, the Internet will just continue to be used to reinforce what is pervasive.

In a working paper for the Born This Way Foundation (started by none other than Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta) titled “Implementing Bullying Prevention Programs in Schools: A How-To Guide”** the authors recommend schools

consider implementing social-emotional learning programs (SEL), which teach youth skills necessary to successfully navigate their interpersonal relationships and regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These skills include but are not limited to: empathy training, effective communication skills, perspective taking, emotion management, problem solving and goal setting. These are not only skills that enable youth to function better in school, but also ones that are valuable life skills and necessary for being successful in the 21st century workplace.

Aren’t these the skills we want our students no matter what environment or situation they find themselves in whether it is in the lunchroom or in a chat room?  We need to make sure we are addressing the behaviors and not just the labels we might use to define them.

**part of a series for The Kinder & Braver World Project: Research Series edited by danah boyd and John Palfrey

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