“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 Tool (note: this is very new to me; I don’t know anyone who has used it yet)