by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
bullying, empathy

Rethinking Bullying: Kids Don't See It As Bullying

from the talking-past-one-another dept

For years we've talked about all the silly overreactions to things like the concept of "cyberbullying." In almost every case, it seems like it's just parents simply being incredibly overprotective concerning kids disagreeing with each other -- and the "solutions" they always seem to pose either seemed so off-base as to be ridicule-worthy, or so heavy-handed as to be worrisome for other reasons. As an example of the former, we had a post years back, about a self-described "cyberbullying expert" who claimed that kids would listen to her message about how cyberbullying was bad because she had some guy in a Spiderman costume telling them about it. And, for the latter, we've got all the ridiculous attempts to criminalize being a jerk online, such as in response to the whole Lori Drew incident.

Danah Boyd, who actually studies social interactions online among young people, recently put up a fascinating post about how kids and adults seem to totally talk past each other on these issues, in large part, because kids don't think of these things as "bullying."
When I first started interviewing teenagers about bullying, they would dismiss my questions. "Bullying is so middle/elementary school," they'd say. "There's no bullying problem at my school," they'd say. And then, as our interview would continue, I'd hear about all sorts of interactions that sounded like bullying. I quickly realized that we were speaking different languages. They'd be talking about "starting drama" or "getting into fights" or "getting into my business" or "being mean." They didn't see rumors or gossip as bullying, regardless of whether or not it happened online. And girls didn't see fighting over boys or ostracizing one another because of boys as bullying. They didn't even see producing fight videos as bullying.

So then I started asking them what bullying was. What I learned was that bullying was when someone picked on someone or physically hurt someone who didn't deserve it. I'd ask how they knew if someone deserved it and the response was incredulous, "oh, you know." So I pushed harder... "what if you don't know?" I asked. I got blank stares so I took a different tactic. "What if someone's messing with someone and that other person thinks they're being mean?" This got their attention, but not in the way that I expected. Most told me that you know when someone is messing with you and that if you don't, you're stupid. Besides, when someone's messing with you, you can't take it seriously.
The real issue, Boyd suggests, is not that "bullying," is a problem. It's a lack of empathy. And, of course, that goes way beyond kids. As she notes, "just ask any marital therapist who's trying to help a couple work through their relationship." From there, she points out that these interactions really aren't all that different from adult interactions:
When I look at how teens hurt each other, I can't help but also see how they're developing training wheels for future relationships and reflecting normative behaviors that they see around them. I hear teens' dramas reflected in their stories about how their parents fight -- with each other, with their friends and family and colleagues, and with them. What teens are doing is more coarse, more direct, and more explicit. But they're witnessing adult dramas all around them and what they tend to see isn't pretty. Parents talking smack about work colleagues or bosses. Parents fighting with each other or ostracizing their family members over disagreements.
Boyd isn't quite sure how to deal with this, but is right that this appears to be a much more productive way of looking at the "issue." In thinking about this, it seems like rather than trying to do the impossible and "stopping" people from acting like jerks, a potentially more effective way of dealing with this is trying (if at all possible) to use those kinds of interactions as learning experiences.

There's a great quote, apparently by Ian Percy that "we judge others by their behavior, while we judge ourselves by our intentions." It's really accurate, and highlights the difficulty of having empathy in such situations. People never think that they are in the wrong -- and since they can't readily understand or know the thought process and intentions of others, it often leads to them thinking the worst. If there were better ways to get people to at least recognize that others might also have good intentions, it could at least limit the negative impact of some interactions. Such fights and misunderstandings will never go away. It's probably wishful thinking to even imagine they can be decreased even slightly. But calling them "cyberbullying" and outlawing jerky behavior or doing silly costumed song-and-dances isn't going to help matters at all.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Freak, 5 Dec 2010 @ 7:47pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    This response struck me as particularly mal-informed, of all the ones here.

    First: "Also the bullied have the most chance to be a fair person in the future, because they have very, very, very strong emotions about it and probably will be driven to never ever do that to others"

    Actually, that's completely false. A person who was bullied, given an opportunity, is more likely to become a bully. It's the same deal as kids who were abused as children are more likely to abuse their own children or other people close to them. The way you interact with others as a child forms the way you think relationships should work, in that your ideas mimic what happened to you. Which is kinda counter-intuitive, but psychology wouldn't be a very interesting field if it worked the way we think it should.

    "it creates empathy towards others."
    Actually, it does just the opposite. Often, it prevents people from forming close bonds with other people; instead, feeling hurt, like say . . . a Victim, they fall into the trap of psychological games. Even after having been bullied by a Prosecutor, they still take on the role of a Victim. Taking up an inauthentic stance in order to get close to someone, without understanding the necessity of being open or honest. Even if a friendship is formed, it feels distant. Like, say, the relationship between a Victim and a Rescuer.
    Summation: Because their experience forces them into the role of the Victim when they interact with people, they fail to form bonds, which means they often find themselves with much less empathy than other people.

    Thus, completely unlike your conclusion, people who are bullied, (or abused by one of their parents), are much, MUCH more likely to become sociopaths. One property of a sociopath is the apparent lack of empathy just so you realize why that stat, (look it up if you like), is relevant.

    "that strife is what enables learning and the formation of social norms" "they need challenges to learn something"

    I don't think it's worth my time to poke another hole in that sieve, but for a single counterexample: People who aren't bullied, (or bullies themselves), develop social norms and learn. There are people who live entirely happy lifes
    Are you saying that the only smart people are the kids who were beat up in school?
    If the scale of strife is such that it need not be bullying, and need not damage the individual . . . then your statements are irrelevant in that they do not serve the purpose of backing up your argument.

    "we are not going to eliminate those things because we all die and new people is born all the time"

    I may be misunderstanding . . . you think it's impossible for old people and young people to agree?
    Even if I agree that strife MUST exist, not everyone will be effected by that strife, I'm sure I can pick an example or dozen just from people I know.

    TL;DR: At best, your argument is a broken window fallacy; in seeing that something good MIGHT come out of something bad, you assume that something bad is necessary, and in fact, actually good. But there are ways of attaining the same good without something bad, and you have yet to prove that something bad necessarily, or statistically, leads to more good than bad, (Indeed, I have given counter-examples, so it is not necessary, and the statistics, AFAIK, say otherwise).

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.