Preventing bullying is just as likely as preventing poverty, racism, or violence.
If we can start by considering bullying from this level of humility, we may be able to improve our efficiency in dealing with and responding to it as a problem.
Of course, there is no "it." Bullying is an output and a symptom -- the result of a variety of factors that manifest themselves well beyond the school. Celebration of aggressiveness and violence, pack mentalities, peer pressure, lack of empathy, violence at home, insecurity, social media, a lack of positive role models, and scores of other factors all combine to produce the ugliness that is bullying.
Technology has a way of amplifying our best and worst characteristics as people, and that is true with bullying -- or cyberbullying -- as well. Cyberbullying is just a digital layer added to what's gone on for years in schools, on playgrounds, in workplaces, and even with professional athletes. In fact, there is now impressive nuance available when bullying through technology.
For one, there is the visibility and scale of it all. Make one comment on an Instagram thread, and every single person afterward sees that comment, as well as any reply. It's the same with Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter if you dig a little. The snide comment in the hallway that was only heard by four of five people has been replaced by the snarky subtweet that has everybody taking screenshots.
Which brings us to the relative permanence of digital fare. Once it's emailed, posted, liked, tagged, texted, or otherwise flung out into the digital ether, it's "loose," gone, no longer under the sender's control. Social media is designed to make people seen and heard, which means that it captures -- and amplifies -- everything. In fact, apps like Snapchat are built around this very idea of permanence vs. impermanence as some kind of escape from accountability.
The New-Bullying: Passive-Aggressive Social Media Behavior
And then there's the nuance I mentioned, starting with passive-aggressive behavior that so many social media platforms seem designed for. The aforementioned subtweets, sliding in and out of people's "mentions" on Twitter, tagging (and more acutely, failing to tag people that very well should have been tagged), failing to respond to tags in a timely fashion, following and unfollowing, friending and defriending, all create an ecology that breeds bullying. Which brings up an interesting point: What does it mean to bully?
And more broadly, what kind of response makes sense to get closer to the roots of the problem?
Education about bullying should probably be a big part of that response, largely built around a clear, modern definition for bullying and all of its degrees. Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as:
[U]nwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
That's not a very kid-friendly definition, so kid-friendliness would be a good start -- a definition for bullying that the people who have trouble understanding it can use. "Being mean to people that can't or won't defend themselves" may be too flimsy-sounding, but it's clear.
Maybe we could offer some compelling and authentic examples, including passive-aggressive bullying? The iconic bully takes lunch money, grabbing pint-sized kids by their ankles, turning them upside down, and shaking out their change. Certainly this still happens, and it would be a stretch to say "21st-century bullying" is always digital. But updating how we define bullying, what it looks like, where it happens, and some basic strategies for response may be a good first step.
If nothing else, it might be helpful to somewhat "normalize" being bullied -- not to make it acceptable, but to remove the stigma from it. Everyone, at some point, has been bullied. There is no reason for shame -- only transparency.
Which brings us to our key takeaway here -- transparency. We can't prevent bullying, but we can make it crystal clear that bullying:
- Happens to everyone
- Has varying degrees, behaviors, and host environments
- Is not OK
- Is correctable
- Takes a village to correct.
Highlighting the behaviors instead of demonizing the bullies themselves could be one strategy. While there is some kind of justice in calling out and ridiculing bullies, that's a lot like spanking kids for hitting, or sending lifelong criminals back to jail. Your reaction to any of this is a matter of personal philosophy and politics, but the big idea is to address the ecology that produces the problem, rather than playing whack-a-mole every time it surfaces.
No, it's not easy, but neither is spending two hours every morning responding to the previous evening's middle school Facebook blow-up.
Setting a New Tone
Educators have taken many approaches to solving the problem of bullying, whether making it "uncool" to bully, meting out scary punishments, or teaching tolerance. Tolerance is certainly part of the issue, but even that starts with highlighting differences between people and suggesting that one "tolerate" the other.
There is no solving the issues, but there can be improved transparency, and a new tone for how we respond -- educating in kid-friendly and authentic language, using real-world examples with updated definitions, all in pursuit of total transparency for a growing problem.