Bullying: When It’s Emotionally Too Painful to See Oneself as Powerless or Abusive

Just passing along a link to an excellent op-ed piece in the 9/22 edition of The New York Times, written by Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick, titled “Bullying as Real Drama.”

By all means go to the link and read the whole thing. Here’s a hunk of it, including what I think is the key insight: that it is very difficult, even painful, for children to identify themselves as either bully or victim, abusive or powerless.

Many teenagers who are bullied can’t emotionally afford to identify as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see themselves as perpetrators. For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.

In our research over a number of years, we have interviewed and observed teenagers across the United States. Given the public interest in cyberbullying, we asked young people about it, only to be continually rebuffed. Teenagers repeatedly told us that bullying was something that happened only in elementary or middle school. “There’s no bullying at this school” was a regular refrain.

This didn’t mesh with our observations, so we struggled to understand the disconnect. While teenagers denounced bullying, they — especially girls — would describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as “drama.”

At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying forms of bullying, joking around, minor skirmishes between friends, breakups and makeups, and gossip. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama. But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but rather a protective mechanism for them.

Teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something. Repeatedly, teenagers would refer to something as “just stupid drama,” “something girls do,” or “so high school.” We learned that drama can be fun and entertaining; it can be serious or totally ridiculous; it can be a way to get attention or feel validated. But mostly we learned that young people use the term drama because it is empowering.

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