The Modern Bully: Someone Else’s Problem

by d

Nerd VennWe have this image, in our collective consciousness, of what a bully looks like. It’s a kid, usually a boy, often larger than the other children. He will be either rich and athletic and perfect, or flawed, stupid and angry. Either way, he needs to make himself feel better. He needs to make other people feel worse. So he finds the weakest, and he destroys them. Or he finds those who threaten his position and he wears away at them until they are no longer a threat. The he continues just because he can.

The female bully has gained less notoriety because she is more subtle. Sometimes she takes the imposing form of the large, angry boy, but usually she is a social climber. She wants to be popular; if she is popular, she wants to stay there. She has learned that it is easier to destroy others than to depend on your own good qualities. So she spreads rumors and cuts down other children when they least expect it. She sows seeds. She speaks in a coded language fraught with layered meaning. She does not need to use her fists. Movies like Mean Girls acknowledged that this creature exists, and how she operates.

It is easy to recognize a child or teenager who bruises his fellow classmates. Women can always tell when another female is targeting someone. But bullying has changed, and it continues to do so at lightning speed. 

The media has made its call: technology is to blame. They’re not wrong, but they’re not entirely right, either.

The Internet began to creep into our lives when I was in sixth grade. By high school everyone had a cell phone and knew how to surf the web. Facebook launched just before we left for college, and I’m grateful that for most of my college career it remained a locked network for students only. We still got tied in knots with what we had. There was email. There was IM. And lo, then there was text messaging. There were blogs, but no one in my year was punished for becoming a gossip hub. All in all, it was tame compared to the present.

The messages we exchanged remained private, unless one party chose to show it around. If they did, it would only be visible to people who knew where to find it on a blog or user profile. Pseudonyms were used, but it never took long to identify the real culprits.

Nowadays, everyone interacts via services like Twitter and Facebook. The default mode is wide publication. Mary Likes This. John is part of #hashtag. All of John’s friends can see everything he does or says. Mary’s friends get a peek into what John says and does when Mary and John interact, or when a mutual friend tags them both. Mary said something nasty about John’s girlfriend Joy; she found it and now everyone is angry. There is no privacy anymore.

Kids don’t understand the long-term effects of this oversharing. Mary and Joy were friends back middle school. BESTIES 4EVAH. Then they fell out of touch, and now Mary’s new friends think Joy is a loser. Mary joins them when they make fun of her… forgetting that she and Joy are still linked. Or, perhaps they aren’t, but they reconnect years later. Joy finds the old post, and suddenly their friendship is on the rocks again.

Is it good or right for us to say rude things about each other when the object of our ire aren’t present? No. But it’s human nature, and it serves a purpose. I would go mad if I couldn’t vent about Person A to Person B. Person A could be someone I adore. That doesn’t mean I will never want to call them something horrible. This expression of anger is cathartic. I would never want Person A to hear me say those things. I only say it to B, whom I trust to keep my secrets. This is all normal, and has happened throughout human history. We should all try to be good people, but it’s ridiculous to assume that we can eliminate this behavior, or even that it should be completely done away with.

That’s one aspect of contemporary bullying: It lives forever, and it can be seen by anyone and everyone.

Here’s the second: Distance.

It is very easy to sit on your couch with the dog and write a vicious message to someone on a forum who you do not agree with. You can flex your vituperative vocabulary, really lay into them. And they’ll do the same thing to you. It’s going to sting like hell when they do. But at the end of the day, you will never know who that other person really is. They will never know you. They can’t spot you in the grocery store, point, and shout, “Hah-hah!” You’re safe, the both of you.

John is able to say terrible things on Facebook that he would never say to someone’s face, or that he would only say to his close friends before. He IS saying them to his close friends… his 100 close, personal friends. Soon he’s shooting off hate speech without a thought, because it is rewarded by “lols” and Likes and Re-Tweets. When someone calls him on it, it turns into a lot of “fuck u” and “you dont even kno what ur talkin about.”

Our high schools are full of Trolls.

They’re braver with technology between them and their victims, but they still interact in person every day. Being cruel online is the first step to being cruel to another’s face. At school, it’s even better–now they get high fives and laughter. It’s intoxicating. And clearly not a big deal because everyone is doing it.

That’s how and why they’re doing it. You may wonder why the hell these kids don’t buck up and play through the pain. After all, bullying happens, they need to get used to it.

To you I say, first, that you are an asshole. And, that was then, this is now.

Teenagers carry their mobile phones everywhere. Each time someone writes to or about them, they get pinged. They flinch when they fear they have become a target. They can no longer go home, to an activity, or to grandma’s house to escape. It follows them, it lurks in their pocket, it chirps insistently until they check. There the barb sits, in full color, for them to read again and again. It imprints on their minds. The messages pile up, a mountain of censure.

No wonder they’re overwhelmed. No wonder they feel they can’t escape. They can’t. The messages are digital, they last forever. The alerts never go away. People they don’t even know are joining in.

There is no forum moderator in your brain, no designated admin to monitor the discussion and keep everyone civil. You can’t ban the IP of the dark voices in your head, the ones that whisper, They’re right, you are a loser. Or, if not that, No one will ever believe you again, there are too many of them, they’ll never let you be happy…

I have been to the deep black pit of clinical depression. I was in high school, and it had nothing to do with being bullied. But when I was depressed, I could not deal with school. I felt my school work bearing down on me. I didn’t have the energy or focus to do it, and my inertia paralyzed me further. If I twist the lens of my imagination, I can turn the essays, math problems and reading assignments into sniping messages, sneers, and derision. Worse than schoolwork, which has no agenda of its own and is not assigned out of malevolence, these bear the ill intent of every poster. Their resentments smack into me like heavy tides, each one threatening to topple me while the ones before drag at my ankles.

I would drown. Don’t kid yourself–you would, too.

I was lucky. I was not bullied. I had a loving, supportive family. I had good friends. The rumor mill existed in the school hallways, it didn’t intrude upon my solitude at home. My depression was born out of chemical malfunction, not any dislike of myself. I received treatment and I have prospered. I am one of the lucky ones.

So what do we do to fix this? How do we make it better?

Technology is to blame, lets get rid of it. Lets regulate the hell out of it or make it a crime to do this, that, or the other.

No. Bullying was a problem in this country long before Twitter and Facebook. The Columbine High School Massacre took place over 11 years ago. When it happened, we swore we would never let it happen again. It was bullying that drove those boys to bring guns to school and mow down classmates and teachers. I believe I was twelve the first time I saw Bang, Bang, You’re Dead. The room where it was performed was utterly silent, rapt.

Too bad, it happened again. Wikipedia lists 59 more incidents since Columbine, including Virginia Tech, which was twice as deadly. It hasn’t stopped. It isn’t going away.

We cannot legislate this away. We cannot crush the tool and assume that it will end the activity. Outlawing guns doesn’t stop people from committing murder, it just limits the ways in which they can do it.

We need to talk to our kids, teach them to be respectful of others. Teach them that privacy is valuable, and that difference is not bad. We need to give them the confidence to stand up for others. If we catch them hurting someone else, we need to come down like a mansion’s worth of bricks. The message must be broadcast loud and clear: This behavior is not acceptable. Everyone, anyone, who sees it happening needs to step in. No more walking past the playground when you hear shouting. Investigate. Offer a hand to that kid who feels unloved. There is a fine line between a Tyler Clementi and a school shooter. The loss of any life is too much. Those who survive will carry the scars forever.

It’s time to get serious, folks. Quit blaming the technology and the times. It’s only going to get worse. Accept some fucking responsibility for yourself and others.

6 Comments to “The Modern Bully: Someone Else’s Problem”

  1. It’s unfortunate, but I think the real reason that this is going to get worse and worse and worse is not because people have not realized this, D, but because there are a lot of people who purposely teach their kids that difference is bad. That it is wrong. That to get ahead you have to knock heads. Literally. And they do this knowing what the consequences may be for their children and the children they victimize. They do it specifically for that purpose. Because, they secretly (or not-so-secretly) think that those who are different have it coming. And it’s going to be hard to get rid of that, because as long as people have that prejudice nothing will stop them from trying to pass it on.

    • There are absolutely people who do this, raise their kids to look down on others. Some don’t even realize they’re doing it, it’s inherent in their attitudes.

      What frightens me is that more and more kids, good kids, ordinary kids, are falling into the bullying habit without that overt message. They should know better, but somehow the distance and the rewards overpower their better nature.

  2. Sadly, the only way to stop bullies is to stand up to them and they crumble like the sissies that they are. Kudos on a great post. I had an epiphany of rage over my sadistic father beating me and my brothers. Bullies had me as their target because my father had me in a constant state of terror. Finally the rage took over and I had to beat up 3 bullies in my school in two days. Never again would I tolerate bullies, of me or anyone else.

    Blessings on you and yours
    John Wilder

    • My dad always told me that the only way to get rid of bullies was to stand up to them. Sometimes you could do that with words, sometimes it had to be fists. I am so sorry that you were bullied by both your father and your peers.

      Bullies get a reward from bullying. You have to take that away, or never give it in the first place. I’m not sure how that translates in the current circumstances.

  3. Great article, D.

    Bullies are empowered by a society which tolerates them— technology has not changed this.
    The way to stand up to bullies is to monitor ourselves and our friends, and call this behavior out as we see it. Liking someone should not give them a free-pass for being cruel. Also, we must look into our hearts and see if we are projecting our feelings of being bullied onto other people, and becoming bullies in the process (there is a fine line between bullying and self-defense.)

    That said, I disagree with “Nowadays, everyone interacts via services like Twitter and Facebook.” I almost never interact with people via my Twitter account, and I don’t use Facebook. The assumption that everyone does, or should, use these services does not take into account people who worry about the privacy and security risks involved.

    Aside from the obvious risk of stalkers, all an identity thief needs to steal your social security number is your location/place of birth and your birthdate (source: Carnegie Melon: http://www.cmu.edu/news/archive/2009/July/july6_ssnprediction.shtml)

  4. You’re right, Roxy, I was being hyperbolic. I amend that to, “a huge portion of the population communicates via … ”

    Wow, I always wondered if SS #s had a logic to them. When everyone guarded their number closely it wasn’t such a problem, though I’m sure an enterprising thief could have gathered enough information. But I’ve been asked to give my SS# on WAY too many forms to be confident that the number is secure. College applications, for starters. Those apps contain birth date, residence, and plenty else that could be used illegally.

    Completely random is the only way to go. And how about we have 2 parts to these codes, like credit card numbers? One that you use in lower level transactions (applications, password confirmation) and another that only you, your bank, and maybe your employer know.

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