Tag Archives: schools

Words matter: When “drama” is really “bullying”

British teen comicIt’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.



Should your teen be Facebook friends with their teachers?

Parenting in the new millenium – these is the kind of question no one needed to ask ten years ago.

There were fewer grey areas in the student-teacher relationship back then. Exchanging telephone numbers was clearly inappropriate. A thank you note dropped in the office mailbox was fine, as was waving hello in the local shopping mall food court. Aside from the occasional incident or rumour, it was pretty straightforward.

Social media changed things. It blurred the conventional methods of communication, making everything seem much less formal.  These new rules weren’t written yet, and relying on common sense wasn’t always particularly helpful but people mostly seemed to figure it out. Or maybe not.

A new law passed in Missouri makes it illegal for teachers to be friends with their students on any social network that allows private communication. This would include Facebook or Twitter. The idea behind the law, quite predictably, is to protect children and teens from predatory adults, but critics worry the law might actually prevent kids at risk from reaching out to trusted adults who could actually offer support.

It seems to me this is actually a much more complicated issue than the panicky rhetoric indicates. I never friended my students when I was a university faculty member, not because I worried about any risk I might pose to them or they to me, but because there are still meaningful divides between our private lives and our public lives. I didn’t need them to see my posts and photos of my kids any more than I wanted to know more than they cared to share in class or in conversation about their relationship woes, parties or trips to New York.

As my kids would say, it’s a case of TMI (too much information).

I don’t think I’m being naive or old-fashioned when I say that line between public and private is still meaningful. The line itself may shift with the times, but it’s still important, whether it’s between adults in a college classroom or kids and teachers in a high school. I had no issues with being contacts on LinkedIn (they were young adults counting on me for professional references, after all) or using email and the telephone to keep in touch. And after the semesters ended and students moved on, there were always a few who kept in touch and gradually crossed the line towards friendship.

But I don’t know many teachers of children and teens who cross that line. And I worry about making these things into confusing new laws. The Missouri bill specifically bans teachers from friending current and former students – does that mean students who’ve graduated are always off-limits? Can’t we just assume that most teachers and most parents will be on top of this? We never legislated teachers phoning their students’ cell phones. We haven’t worried about them texting each other. We didn’t make it illegal for them to send each other holiday cards (though I’m guessing few ever do).

So no, I don’t think your teen should be Facebook friends with their teachers, for all of these reasons and more. This should be a part of every school and school board’s media policy.  And general common sense about this would benefit from discussion and awareness-raising. This is a case where the adults involved really should know better. After all, they are protecting both themselves and their students.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, whatever your perspective. Feel free to comment here or message me directly.

Does your kid’s school have a social media policy?

What does that mean anyway? And why should you care?

A social media policy means the school (or board) is thinking proactively about what their students, teachers and staff are doing online. It means they are thinking through the guidelines for acceptable behaviour, safety and accountability. Some schools just ban social media (like Facebook) outright, but increasingly schools and school boards are realizing that they need to actively teach how to manage this important form of communication instead of sticking their heads in the sands and hoping it will all just…. go away.

Why should you care? Because your child will benefit from learning about social media from someone other than their friends (and maybe you). Because social media can be used in all sorts of creative, productive, exciting and challenging ways (not just to comment on what your friends are wearing). Because knowing how to use these tools effectively will certainly be a part of their future.

I spent the morning attending a meeting with the digital awareness committee at Trafalgar School for Girls, and I was so impressed by their creativity and forward-thinking. They have drafted a clear and comprehensive policy that emphasizes respect and safety. As we discussed a number of possible ways to stimulate and maintain a dialogue about social media with students, staff and parents, certain things emerged as particularly important:

  • Student involvement: giving them a voice and the power to get involved means they will be more likely to buy in.
  • Educating parents: parents need to know what this is all about, how it fits into what we know about adolescent development, and how they need to be involved.
  • Understanding how technology has changed what it means to be a teenager: sure, websites and apps like Facebook, Skype and Viber are cool, but they also introduce all sorts of new stressors. For today’s kids, the camera is always on. They spend hours cultivating and maintaining their digital personas. Old boundaries of privacy are not respected. Hateful and hurtful comments that would have been tossed out in the schoolyard and quickly forgotten are now hyper-public and enduring online. The usual adolescent anxieties around self-esteem and identity development are magnified — the stakes for every interaction have gotten higher.
  • Try to see past the panic: with each new technological leap, we tend to panic about what this will mean for our children, how it will destroy the moral fabric of our society, and how it will corrupt our girls and women (See Carolyn Marvin’s brilliant book, When Old Technologies Were New). I don’t mean to underplay the serious challenges we face, but we need to also maintain a clear vision of the fabulous opportunities these technologies open up for us.

There’s certainly a lot to think about, but this meeting with a group of bright, involved educators and parents left me feeling particularly optimistic.