Empathy as a Bullying Prevention Tool

19 Nov

In the recent New York Times Op-Ed article “Bullying as True Drama,” danah boyd and Alice Marwick point out that current anti-bullying education programs are falling short because they are framing the conversation in adult terms rather than using terminology used by teens to describe abusive behavior.  As the article points out, rather than using words like abuse, harassment, bullying, or victimization, teens will use words and phrases like “drama” or “high school stuff”.  Teens often use these ways to describe harmful behavior because it allows them to distance themselves from the negative behavior by minimizing it.

For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive (boyd & Marwick, 2011, para.2).

Stop Cyber Bullying Day

When tragic suicides of young people like those of Jamey Rodemeyer and Ashlynn Conner occur, questions during the aftermath often center around what the adults in their lives could have done during these children’s times of crisis, and how their distress should have been recognized.  That is valid.  However, in order to prevent things from going this far in the first place, boyd and Marwick say the focus should be to “work within teenagers’ cultural frame, encourage empathy and help young people understand when and where drama has serious consequences (para. 11)” [emphasis mine].

By encouraging empathy, I believe we not only need to stress the importance of youth empathizing with one another, but to demonstrate that we, as adults, can actually empathize (or even sympathize) with them.  Sometimes we forget what it was like to be 12 or 15, and there’s good reason for that.  Children’s brains and emotional coping mechanisms are not fully developed at that age.  But after I read this point about encouraging empathy in the article, I seriously reflected on my own experiences as an elementary, middle and high school student, and I made some astonishing realizations. Foremost among these, I was bullied for years. I mean, I logically always knew in the back of my adult mind that I was picked on pretty severely as a kid, but in the context of the definition of bullying, I was really bullied.

When I thought reflectively and honestly about these experiences in light of the research I have read about this topic, I was awestruck to realize that I fit the profile of a bullying victim exactly, and the way I handled it is very typical of how a child processes this kind of social problem.  It scared me because if the bullying had been worse – maybe if Facebook existed when I was a kid, or maybe if I felt a little more helpless than I did in the end, could I have been a Jamey Rodemeyer myself?

Key Takeaways:

  • Bullying prevention needs to use a relevant social framework. 
    As described by boyd and Marwick, if we’re not using terminology that students relate to, all of our anti-bullying efforts are going to fall on deaf ears.  I am in my thirties, and I just recognized the behavior of my peers from grades 2-10 as bullying, and it was serious.  I instead always played it down as “teasing” and rationalized the harassment as being indicative of true inadequacies rather than as abuse, and it took me years to develop the self agency and resiliency to minimize these hits to my self-esteem.
  • Victims of cyberbullying are likely to be at risk in other areas of their lives. “The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies” (Palfrey, Sacco, boyd, DeBonis & Tatlock, 2008). I’ll just say I fit this profile pretty accurately, at least in the pre-social networking context. Additionally, it is not uncommon for cyberbullying victims or perpetrators to be victims or perpetrators of schoolyard bullying as well.  Upon reflection, I am truly grateful that I didn’t have the option to harm others’ reputations or self-esteems online or to be harmed in that way.  That could have been the difference between my ability to find ways to cope with the situation (which heavily involved keeping it to myself) and the tragic cases of students who feel hopeless enough to hurt or even kill themselves.

Definition of cyberbullying: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” (Hinduja & Patchin, 2011)

  • When a child asks for help, the situation is  probably already very serious. Upon honest reflection, I realized I only ever talked about the bullying at school once, and in retrospect I am so grateful to my mother for her response.  We were struggling financially, so annual school clothes shopping was not a big tradition in my family.  In middle school, some severe  growth spurts had resulted in all of my pants being far too short, and I was teased mercilessly about “the coming floods”.  The clothes that did fit me were clearly old or purchased second-hand, and my peers had plenty to say about it.  One day shortly after the beginning of 7th grade, I broke down in tears, and my mom immediately took me shopping and spent money she probably didn’t have to get me some new clothes.  I knew then that she cared about my situation deeply and did not minimize the trauma I was experiencing. (I think I owe her a phone call.)

    Other than that one instance, though, I never told my parents or another trusted adult about the bullying I endured  at school (and there was much more). I also never told anyone at school about the abuse I endured and witnessed at home. This realization really took my breath away. I know that I survived some truly difficult circumstances with very little intervention.  I don’t think I’m special or unique in this, and I think a lot of kids handle these situations the same way, out of self-preservation socially or a sense of duty to “protect” their perpetrators (particularly family members).  So if a kid actually comes to you in tears or begs you not to make them go to school the next day? There is no time to waste.

Sources
boyd, danah, & Marwick, A. (2011, September 22). Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark. NYTimes.com. Retrieved November 19, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/23/opinion/why-cyberbullying-rhetoric-misses-the-mark.html?_r=1

Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2011). About Us: Background and Contact Information. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved November 19, 2011, from http://www.cyberbullying.us/aboutus.php

Palfrey, J., Sacco, D. T., boyd, d., DeBonis, L., & Tatlock, J. (2008). Enhancing child safety & online technologies: Final report of the Internet Safety Council to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Retrieved from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/sites/cyber.law.harvard.edu/files/ISTTF_Final_Report.pdf.

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4 Responses to “Empathy as a Bullying Prevention Tool”

  1. Joy November 19, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this personal story. It is so moving and makes me think about how difficult it is for some kids to say anything and how important an appropriate adult’s response is.

  2. mariebanach November 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    Hi Mary – Thank you for sharing your personal story. What you went through sounds awful. I, too, was bullied mercilessly for a couple of years in 7-8 grades. I went to a parochial school so I had the same ~23 kids in my class since kindergarten. I was stuck in the same room with them all day every day. I went home everyday in tears and shared with my mom what was going on. She did her best to help me handle it. I was fortunate that I could escape the bullying by going home at the end of the day to be with my neighborhood friends who went to other schools. I can’t image how much more intense it would have been if social networking were available and I couldn’t get away from it like I could when I was younger. I was fortunate that the main bully went to our public high school and I went to the parochial one. It finally ended because of that separation.

  3. WiseLibrarian November 21, 2011 at 1:26 am #

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. I am thankful that you were able to overcome these childhood challenges and become an accomplished student. Your experiences will undoubtedly positively inform your practice. Your future students will be lucky to have you!

  4. Marilyn Arnone December 8, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    You are indeed one of the fortunate individuals who have the resilience to continue to grow and emerge as an individual in the face of these sad experiences. I think that gives you a unique perspective on the topic and a keen sensitivity to the cues that signal bullying. Thank you for sharing your key take-aways.

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