Bullying as True Drama, a New York Times Op-Ed article by social science researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwik, describes what needs to change in order to make anti-bullying programs more effective in order to prevent tragedies like the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer.
The names of highly publicized cases of young people who recently committed suicide because of bullying, sometimes called “bullycides”, reads like a tragic roll of heartbreak – Jamey Rodemeyer, Phoebe Prince, Eric Mohat, Tyler Clementi, Megan Meyer, Michell Wilson, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, Ashler Brown, and Seth Walsh.
As their heart-broken parents and shocked school communities search desperately for answers, educators and politicians try to find ways to create and implement programs, policies, and laws that will make a difference.
Boyd and Marwik’s research shows that well-intentioned efforts to identify bullying as wrong, to punish young people for bullying, and to encourage bullying victims to get help are often not effective because many teens do not use the same language as adults to describe this behavior and don’t relate to terms like “bully” and “victim.”
Instead, many teens use the term “drama” – defined as “ interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an audience” – which allows them to save face and distance themselves from adult labels like “bully”, “ relational aggression”, and “victim.” The result is that all kinds of behavior ranging from immature, petty, and ridiculous to devastating fall under the “drama” label, which makes it hard for teens to understand and take responsibility for the impact.
According to Boyd and Marwik, “Antibullying efforts cannot be successful if they make teens feel victimized without providing them the support to go from a position of victimization to one of empowerment. …The key is to help young people feel independently strong, confident, and capable without first requiring them to see themselves as either an oppressed person or an oppressor.” They recommend approaches that are relevant to a teen’s cultural context, encourage empathy, and focus on positive concepts like healthy relationships and digital citizenship.
Our experience at Kidpower is very consistent with these findings. Since 1989, we have worked with over 2 million children, teens, and adults, including those with special needs, to create cultures of caring, respect, and safety for everyone through teaching “People Safety” skills – skills for people to take charge of the emotional and physical safety of people, including oneself and others.
Our focus is on preparing adults to take positive, powerful leadership in protecting young people from harm – and in empowering kids with skills for protecting themselves. Most conflict in teen relationships, whether you call it “bullying” or “drama” can be managed in healthy ways if adults know how to stay connected with young people as they become more independent, stay aware of what’s going on, intervene to stop bullying, and teach young people to use their own power to build positive peer relationships, set boundaries, move away from trouble, protect their feelings, and be very persistent in getting adult help. Adults also need to know how to respond when a child or teen asks for help – and how to protect the young person who was bullied from retaliation.