It’s funny how the words we use work like a kind of filter for our understanding of the world. Take the word “bully,” for instance. It’s become a fully loaded term, a trigger for all that is evil in kid culture. Calling someone a bully is a big deal, a huge accusation. Even kindergarteners pick up on this inflection.
But it’s also an adult word, one that teens rarely use themselves. Researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick argue in their paper (The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics) that most middle and high school students see bullying as a grade school problem, and that they use the term “drama” instead to describe the conflicts, tensions and skirmishes of adolescence.
But words matter. Transforming the devil term “bullying” into the less powerful “drama” rhetorically restructures the seriousness of whatever has occurred. Drama, the term insists, is about the normal antics of teens. Kids will be kids. The word itself is suggestive of eye-rolling, of dismissable, precocious, possibly irreverent but ultimately harmless mischief. It is heavily gendered, though boys can also get involved in drama. Drama is what Paris Hilton does. What People Magazine reports. Drama has a kind of glittery appeal, a cool factor.
It needs to be said that not all drama is bullying. The histrionics of teenagers, the emotional outbursts, the misunderstandings that blow up into gossip-worthy fights between former BFFs – that’s all drama too. Some of it is funny, or ridiculous or just a way to get attention. And a good portion of that is teenagers trying on different quasi-adult roles, manufacturing interesting stories out of the banalities of their daily existence. With a hefty dose of celebrity culture thrown in for good measure.
And certainly not all bullying gets reduced to drama. A 15-year-old who utters anti-Semitic epithets and uses a lighter to set a classmate’s hair on fire? That’s bullying writ large and clear. Not even the most jaded 13-year-old would mistake that for drama.
The upshot of all this is that many teens don’t recognize that what they are experiencing, seeing online or doing themselves might actually be bullying. Calling it drama invalidates their experience. It overlooks the malicious intent. It discredits the hurt. It implies, in the most withering tone imaginable, “Can’t you take a joke?” when what happens isn’t funny at all.
Calling actual harassment or abuse “drama” simultaneously lets the victims save face, even as it lets the perpetrators pretend that they are doing something innocuous or clever. In an ironic twist, this rhetorical twist gives both bully a victim some intellectual distance. But for the victims, the pain is still there.
It also means, Boyd argues on her blog, Apophenia, that when teachers or guidance counsellors come in and lecture them about bullying, it has little practical impact. All those good intentions just don’t resonate. She explains:
Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive. They aren’t willing to go there. And when they are, they need support immediately. Yet, few teens have the support structures
necessary to make their lives better.
Boyd and Marwick make a compelling argument to reframe the whole bullying debate. It would be a terrible shame if all the resources of time, effort and money put into anti-bullying campaigns are just missing the mark. We need to use the narratives the kids themselves are using in order to reach them.
In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, the researchers wrote:
Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish.
Antibullying efforts cannot be successful if they make teenagers feel victimized without providing them the support to go from a position of victimization to one of empowerment. When teenagers acknowledge that they’re being bullied, adults need to provide programs similar to those that help victims of abuse. And they must recognize that emotional recovery is a long and difficult process.
We need to work at the level of teens’ cultural narratives, explaining how some kinds of “drama” has long-lasting and serious cultural consequences. We need to work on tolerance and empathy. We need to teach them digital citizenship rather than banning Facebook and cellphones at schools. We need to get them involved in their communities and help them feel connections to others. These kinds of positive interactions may well have longer lasting consequences than the traditional anti-bullying campaigns we are using.