I loved ‘”Bullying” Has Little Resonance with Teenagers’ by Danah Boyd. Boyd writes about how the real problem is not new technologies making bullying easier— the problem is a lack of empathy. Young people (along with many who aren’t so young) don’t see their actions as “bullying.” In short, teens think of “bullying” as picking on someone who doesn’t deserve it. And since they think that those they ridicule or exclude are deserving of such treatment, they don’t view their actions as “bullying.” The fact that society glorifies “drama” makes this situation even worse.
How can we, as educators, teach students empathy? How can we cultivate kindness, both online and offline? I think that we have to start by modeling empathy ourselves. We also have to have direct conversations with our students about how others’ feelings are impacted by our words and actions. We have to have these conversations all the time. I think students would also benefit from watching videos like those on Common Sense Media, which give such clear examples of the consequences of bullying. I think that it is valuable to also ask students to think about what the aggressor might have been thinking as he/she did the bullying. How does a person justify bullying?
I worry that our students picture “bullies” as 100% bad kids, who are out to bully someone for the joy of bullying. While I know that those types do exist, it is also often a former friend who feels hurt and then reacts by bullying, or someone who has been excluded from a group who then also excludes. Clearly, having been hurt doesn’t give someone the right to bully, but by casting “bullies” as one-dimensional total jerks, it makes it easier for students to think, “I’m not a bully. I’m a nice kid.” It also makes it more difficult for them to see actions as bullying when they experience those hurtful acts themselves. Can a bully be a total jerk all the time? Sure. Can a normally nice kid also bully? Definitely. I teach a lot of nice kids, and I am sure many of them have bullied others at some point in time. I’m also pretty sure that few of them would categorize their actions as bullying. There really is a disconnect.
Asking a student if he/she has ever bullied someone is likely to get a negative answer, but showing examples of what bullying can look like and what can be the initial cause for it to begin would encourage students to think more critically about how they treat others, and how others treat them. Empathizing with those in the videos can be a first step towards students having greater empathy as they interact with their peers.