Human beings are hard-wired to belong. We are social beings and we derive happiness from positive interactions with other living creatures, especially people. What happens when we are rejected? We experience very real psychological and physical symptoms of pain, such as anxiety, depression, stomach aches, sleeplessness, headaches and panic attacks.
I have noticed a continuing theme, however, in the comments that respond to articles about bullying prevention. “I was bullied ten years ago,” wrote one man on a recent article of mine, “and I beat the guy up and he never bothered me again. Stop turning kids today into pussies. Being bullied makes them stronger.”
After seeing this same type of response hundreds of times, I puzzled over it -- truly considered it -- and I’ve come to one glaring conclusion. “Ten years ago” is the problem. I looked back over some of my older works, and there is a commonality. Almost all of these toughened-up former victims of bullying are now adults.
They have no shared definition of what it means to be bullied today. Based on their memories, their advice feels valid to them. But being bullied ten or twenty or fifty years ago does not qualify you to dismiss those who are being bullied today.
Largely, it is because of the digital revolution. Kids live and breathe social media. A few years back it was MySpace. Then the hot thing became Facebook. As Facebook takes more steps to combat abuse, teens are shifting to Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr, although now Twitter has added a Report Abuse button too. Every time the moms and dads develop an interest in a social media site, the kids move on to the next one, trying to find a cool new unmonitored place to hang out.
And these days, when a kid is bullied, maybe it starts with being shoved into lockers and beaten up on the playground. So let’s say a kid fights back and beats up his bully. But then the kid starts receiving vicious tweets. Then he learns that there is a Facebook page where people are writing that he is a fag or other epithets.
Who does he beat up to make that stop? He can’t. The nameless faceless bullies of the Internet creep into his consciousness and torment him. Or the girl who finds out that hundreds of people are sharing a photo-shopped nude picture of her having sex with three guys and calling her a slut – who is she supposed to beat up to make it stop? That advice is too simplistic.
And as far as the assertion that being bullied makes you stronger? Check out the chapter in my book (being released in paperback TODAY!!!) called The Harmful Effects of Bullying on the Brain, where you will learn of multiple studies that show how being bullied not only causes immediate distress but also changes the way the brain works and leads to long-term difficulties for survivors. For example, kids who have been severely bullied can have trouble years later in the workplace, because they perceive harmless interactions as threatening. Their bodies are in a permanent state of fight or flight. They exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Instead of dismissing the victims of bullying as weaklings who are in need of toughening up, how about approaching the problem of bullying from a relational point of view? There are multiple issues that contribute to the severity of bullying in today’s culture. Yes, we should help empower victims. But we also need to educate and teach empathy and tolerance to those who act as bullies.
If you think the only two parties involved in bullying are the aggressors and the targets, think again.
The bystanders who click “like” on vicious Facebook status updates and who retweet cruel tweets are part of the problem. The companies that churn out mounds of advertisements and products sexualizing women and children are culpable, because sexualization is rooted in misogyny and homophobia. The TV shows and movies that rely on stereotypes for cheap laughs in their story lines contribute to the problem. The media, with their endless focus on looks and money and power, feed the frenzy of entitlement that enables bullying. The ugly competitiveness between people, each trying to reach the top, leads to underhanded behaviors that harm us all.
The answers? Collaboration. Empathy. Education. Awareness. Endlessly advocating for change. Practicing how to do better.
To learn more about the culture of bullying and how to end the cycle of fear, please read Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear, available today in paperback! Click here to get it from Amazon and here to get it from Barnes & Noble.
In the year since the hardcover came out, Bullied has won multiple awards, largely thanks to the following hardworking groups and inspiring individuals who either gave me interviews for the book or who are supporting my work post publication:
***Dorothy Espelage, Chase Masterson, Trudy Ludwig, Annie Fox, Michele Borba, Stan Davis, Melissa Wardy, Jean Kilbourne, Lyn Mikel Brown, Rosalind Wiseman, Peggy Orenstein, Rachel Simmons, Ashley Eckstein, Robyn Silverman, Bonnie Burton, Jenna Busch, Lori Day, Jo Paoletti, Inês Almeida, Michele Sinisgalli-Yulo, Sue Scheff, Amy Jussel, Rina Campbell, Judy Freedman, Jamie Gumbrecht, Emanuella Grinsberg, the ChicagoNow bloggers, Jimmy Greenfield, Anne Collier, Sarah Hoffman, Sarah Buttenwieser, Cheryl Kilodavis, the Anti-Defamation League, the 501st Legion, the Antibullying Coalition, San Diego Comic-Con, No H8 Campaign, United Nations Associations, Cartoon Network’s Stop Bullying: Speak Up, GLSEN, Girl Scouts, IBPA, Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies, the team at HarperOne, Foundry Literary & Media, and of course my husband Andrew, my three little girls, our families and friends!
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