With Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi’s suicide three weeks ago, the anxiety about bullying that has been bubbling up in the culture for quite some time broke the surface. While organizations ranging from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, The Pacer Center and MTV have been on the case for a while, and the CDC has been releasing alarming – shocking even – statistics on bullying for years, the issue has risen to the top of our collective consciousness and has taken on the fervor of a national crisis.
Across venues ranging from academic conferences to client presentations to conversations with parents, we’ve often heard the question posed, “what’s wrong with today’s youth?” Indeed, a recent NY Times articlefeatured the opinions of a variety of experts who mostly admitted that they weren’t speaking from data or from real evidence when they suggest that bullying has something to do with watching Beyonce and Jay-Z videos. Other experts quotes in the article blame Hannah Montana, citing this show and shows like it for positioning put-downs as poking fun. And countless articles and broadcasts before this one have demonized cell phones and social networks as the bully’s new bestie.
Reading these accounts, one might expect that most youth go to school in absolute fear. As a parent, taking this data at face value could be paraylizing – how could we send our kids to school knowing that many would be perpetrators or victims, and that violence (verbal, emotional or physical) is lurking at their lockers and hiding in the hallways.
But is bullying new? And is it as pervasive as it may seem?
Bullying has been around forever. Mean girls, physically aggressive boys and rumor-spreading kids, tweens and teens are nothing new. In my middle school years, “Slam Books” were the offline version of labeling or ostracizing your peers and take in an episode of Leave it To Beaver to know that a boy who was smaller than the rest and who had a funny name was likely to get some ribbing. So why has our attention to it changed? First, we know a lot more about bullying. We know that a wound – whether emotional or physical – takes a long time to heal. We also know that the outcome of even one unfortunate event can be devastating. No longer do we accept, as a society, that boys will be boys or that gossip is benign. And rightfully so, as adults, we’re more concerned about these timeless acts of exclusion than ever.
Second, throughout time, adults have tended to romanticize their own childhood and see the acts of today’s youth as more subversive, more harmful and more morally questionable than those of their own childhoods. How many times have we heard, “In my day, we didn’t occupy ourselves with so many video games.” “When I was growing up, we listened to “good” music – not what they’re listening to today.” This mindset can be quite dangerous, and as countless sociologists have pointed out, can bring us to a frenzy over the truths of today’s youth culture. We’re not debating that being able to bully in public, quickly, as in texting and social networking, have not raised the stakes of bullying. The rumor mill moves at cyber speed, and the pulpit for put downs is bigger. But this generation of youth did not invent bullying, they just practice it on their own terms.
And finally, what might be different are the victims. Our YouthBeat data shows that most youth (over 95% of kids, tweens and teens) leave bullying off the list of things they worry about. But bullying has always been confined to a few. And this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be paying attention…Rather than looking for ways to statistically prove that bullying affects all kids, let’s just acknowledge that it’s okay to pay attention to an issue that has significant effects on a statistically insignificant number of youth. If today’s extreme ostracizing has been focused on just a few gay youth, shouldn’t we still be concerned? And what is it about the culture at large that seems more tolerant and open to diversity, but continues to victimize youth who are in the minority?
So to put bullying back into perspective, we think that we need to stop pretending that it’s happening to everyone and acknowledge that we can all have compassion for, and speak out against, harmful acts that are affecting just a few. And this issue might rightfully become the cause of the cohort – but not because they made it worse, but simply because they know better than to accept it.