Bullying 2.0 is more like a drama class

“Bullying” may be the accepted term for kid-on-kid brutality, but it’s seldom used among kids themselves

Bullying 2.0 is more like a drama class

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What is likely the only thing Lady Gaga and Conservative MP Mike Allen have in common? Both believe that bullying should be a criminal offence. Following the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer in Buffalo, N.Y., last month (the teen was bullied mercilessly for being gay), Lady Gaga expressed via Twitter that “Bullying must become illegal,” and underscored her position by pressing President Barack Obama about bullying while towering in heels (Obama has since described the encounter at a fundraiser as “intimidating”). New Brunswick’s Mike Allen, for his part, has been working with BullyingCanada.ca to make bullying an illegal act. Despite their efforts, however, neither the pop star nor the politician has been successful. While various behaviours that fall under the bullying umbrella—assault, uttering threats, harassment, unauthorized use of a computer—are included in the Criminal Code of Canada, the term bullying itself is not. The young offender who last year allegedly attacked Mitchell Wilson—the 11-year-old Pickering, Ont., boy who recently committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly for his muscular dystrophy symptoms—was charged with assault, not bullying. And maybe that’s a good thing; because the divergent languages of bullying—what adults call it and what its younger victims do—may be more problematic than its pending legal status.

Recent research confirms what I—someone not far removed from adolescence—have suspected for awhile. “Bullying” may be the accepted term for kid-on-kid brutality, but it’s seldom used among kids themselves. “They view the term as adult-driven,” says Wendy Craig, a Queen’s University psychology professor and researcher at the Bully Lab. “Teens especially don’t generally refer to the term.” Craig echoes recent research by Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick, whose innovative paper on bullying in the United States found that young people don’t use the word “bullying” in the same way and/or nearly as frequently as parents and educators do; not only is the term practically unused, it’s considered painfully passé. In fact, when most teens hear about bullying they automatically assume a “grade school problem” that doesn’t apply. On GritTV last year, actor John Fugelsang argued that the verb bullying should be retired for good. “Bullying is a flaccid, outdated, archaic, Archie comic term,” he said. “It’s quaint, it’s useless, it’s toothless.”

So how, then, do young people label the humiliating and infuriating abuse of power adults call bullying? In classic teenager style, ironically and maybe even more insidiously, they call it “drama.” Why drama? “The emic use of ‘drama,’ ” wrote Boyd and Marwick, “allows teens to distance themselves from practices which adults may conceptualize as bullying. As such, they can retain agency—and save face—rather than positioning themselves in a victim narrative.”

In plain English, Jessica sends a mass email to everyone in her high school slandering Rachel, in order to win over Rachel’s boyfriend, and the entire cyberbullying incident (as it might be referred to on the part of the school’s principal) is chalked up (on the kids’ part) to a whole lot of drama. “Why are you starting all this drama?” Rachel the Victim might ask Jessica the Perpetrator, from whom she’d likely hear: “God, Rachel, stop being so dramatic.” Catch the poisonous and understated collusion in that exchange? The term drama minimizes the seriousness of the incident and the pain it causes, which only makes it twice as serious and painful.

There you have it: Bullying 2.0—a different beast than the kind concerned officials are currently battling. The problem is that the majority of adults who’d like to see bullying outlawed aren’t familiar with the social nuances of the wholly social problem they want to eradicate. And this disconnect, if Boyd and Marwick are correct, could turn the “war on bullying” into the war on drugs, or the war on terror—other misnomers whose relative failures are bound up in the fact that advocates aren’t even sure what they’re fighting. Until that changes, bullying probably won’t, either.

But Craig remains ever hopeful and—in the face of the optimism surrounding the issue, that bullying is some kind of new epidemic we’re on the brink of curing—realistic. “People will always want power,” she says, acknowledging that kid-on-kid conflict, by any name, will exist forever. “It’s how we teach them to use that power that makes the difference . . . taking them out of school and putting people in jail doesn’t help them change.” It’s a good point: isolating bullies—and especially putting them together—isn’t ideal for the rehabilitation process. But more importantly, it doesn’t teach us anything new about the problem we’re trying to solve.

Language does. That youth may shirk the term (“bullying”) but not the act itself is more important than the legal semantics of something officials are only beginning to understand. It’s also profoundly telling: the way teens use “drama” doesn’t represent a mere generational shift in lingo, but rather an attempt to minimize the effects of a dangerous and painful behaviour. And it’s hard to confront that behaviour—legally or otherwise—when both victim and perpetrator are reluctant to do so themselves. George Carlin was right. His website says, “Language is a tool for concealing the truth,” but if anti-bullying activists spend more time listening in than speaking out, they’ll learn it has the power to reveal as well.

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Bullying 2.0 is more like a drama class

  1. Okay, you spent an entire article about semantics. Which leaves us where we began. No solutions? No suggestions except to listen to the word drama for more cues. Great. Then what?

  2. “… whose innovative paper on bullying in the United States found that young people don’t use the word “bullying” in the same way and/or nearly as frequently as parents and educators do; not only is the term practically unused, it’s considered painfully passé.”

    The Atlantic ~ How To Land Your Kids In Therapy:

    Let’s say, Jane explained, that a mother is over by the sign-in sheet, and her son has raced off to play. Suddenly the mother sees her kid fighting over a toy with a classmate. Her child has the dump truck, and the other kid grabs it. Her child yells, “No! That’s mine!” The two argue while the other kid continues to play with the truck, until finally the other kid says, “This one is yours!” and tosses her child a crappy one. Realizing the other kid won’t budge, her child says, “Okay,” and plays with the crappy toy.“Her kid is fine,” Jane said. “

    But the mother will come running over and say, ‘But that’s not fair! Little Johnnie had the big truck, and you can’t just grab it away. It was his turn.’ Well, the kids were fine with it. Little Johnnie was resilient! We do teach the kids not to grab, but it’s going to happen sometimes, and kids need to learn how to work things out themselves. The kid can cope with adversity, but the parent is reeling, and I end up spending my time calming down the parent while her kid is off happily playing.”

    Jane told me that because parents are so sensitive to how every interaction is processed, sometimes she feels like she’s walking on eggshells while trying to do her job. If, for instance, a couple of kids are doing something they’re not supposed to—name-calling, climbing on a table, throwing sand—her instinct would be to say “Hey, knock it off, you two!” But, she says, she’d be fired for saying that, because you have to go talk with the kids, find out what they were feeling, explain what else they could do with that feeling other than call somebody a “poopy face” or put sand in somebody’s hair, and then help them mutually come up with a solution.

    • The problem at hand is not bullying in pre-school. It is bullying in high school and later grades. Yes we can teach children in pre-school how to be kind to one another, but it is not what we teach our kids in pre-school that is the problem. It is what society teaches is normal. If you are a gay teen you feel excluded because society does not reflect back to you yourself. I feel like you are taking the power out of bullying by using a situation irrelevent.

  3. The youth of today might not be making conscious decisions about the words they use to
    describe their actions, but it is clear that the words they do use have been chosen for a reason.  Language evolves, and the labels for “bullying” have evolved as well.  The word “drama” has emerged as the word that is the most fit (in an evolutionary sense) to describe what the youth feel they are doing.  Exploring why it has succeeded against the “flaccid, outdated, archaic” bullying is likely to yield good insight into the minds of the youth perpetrating the drama, and why they a “War on Bullying” response is doubtful to have any positive effect.  Language shapes the way we view the world; therefore, to understand how people think, since we’re still short on mind-reading technology, it is necessary to look at how they speak.  In this case we needn’t look any farther than the word drama itself.  In a theatrical sense, drama is a form of heightened reality in which the stakes, payoffs, and risks of any situation are all increased. The dramatic world has a set of rules that are subtly different than the ones that operate in real life.  In plays, the kind of nefarious behaviours that typically fall under the heading of “bullying” – such as the slander example given in the article– are simply plot devices.  It is not only accepted that these events occur; it is necessary for the progress of the plot that some sort of conflict between people occurs.  Youth don’t use the word drama to distance themselves from their actions; they use it because they consider their actions a natural and necessary process.  If you ask any teenager they’re going to deny hotly that they view bullying as necessary, but how will they respond if you ask them how they view drama? Seeing bullying as a natural course of events is much more insidious than people committing harmful acts out of cruelty.  It also makes it much harder to eradicate because it has been ingrained in their minds by society that drama is good.  Drama is exciting; drama sells.  The slippery slope from bullying to drama highlights how you can twist the intent behind an action simply by the word you choose to represent it.  I don’t have a concrete solution to the problem, but the only way to stop people from committing the actions is to repair the thought-processes that lead to bullying.  And the only route to how people think is through how they speak. Fixing the language of bullying will have to occur before bullying itself can be tackled.

  4. This is a fine article, almost breathtakingly accurate to what I observe on a daily basis as a high school teacher.  Whether or not the phenomenon is labeled as “drama,” kids certainly do not conceive of it as identical with what adults call “bullying.” Instead, they see it as simply working out the power dynamics of their own private social world, which they see as apart from adult concern; and there is considerable prestige among them in being seen to be a mover-and-shaker in this world, one capable of altering the social status of others.

    Rlee’s comment (see above) is silly.  The author is pointing to something much more than a mere semantic distinction.  She’s saying that since kids do not even recognize themselves in much of what our current “anti-bullying” measures attempt to address, they are not, in their own minds “bullies,” but rather they are participants in teenage “drama.”  She is saying that if our current programs do not analyze more deeply what it is that teenagers are actually doing, and if they do not find a way to speak about it in language of which teenagers themselves will take ownership, then these measures will continue to miss the mark.  This is an extremely useful piece of the solution; indeed, it is an absolute prerequisite for getting anything done about this at all.

    In short, we need to rethink the whole phenomenon of “bullying” as it used to be known, and address it on the terms, and in the language, that kids currently understand.  This is a most timely observation, and I find myself tremendously grateful to the author for pointing us to it.

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