Facing Teen Bullying
The last months of 15-year-old Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince's life at a Massachusetts high school were filled with "relentless activity directed toward Phoebe designed to humiliate her and to make it impossible for her to remain at school" ("Phoebe Prince, South Hadley High School's 'new girl,' driven to suicide by teenage cyber bullies," New York Daily News, March 29, 2010). According to the article, "On January 14, Phoebe was harassed and threatened in the school library and in a hallway. As she walked home, one of the 'Mean Girls' drove by and threw a can of Red Bull at her. Phoebe walked into her house and hung herself in a stairwell. The nastiness didn't even end there. Her tormentors posted vicious comments on the dead girl's Facebook memorial page."
Some may dismiss bullying as "a normal part of growing up" that helps kids negotiate the complexities of social interactions. However, while good-natured teasing is a part of many healthy relationships, bullying is far different and more serious. "Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional, repeated over time, and involves an imbalance of power or strength. A child who is being bullied has a hard time defending himself or herself" (www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov). Such behavior has undoubtedly always been a part of the human experience, but should it be accepted as normal?
It is important to understand the reasons for bullying in order to appropriately address it. "Bullies go for admiration, for status, for dominance," says René Veenstra, a sociologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands ("Behind Bullying: Why Kids Are So Cruel," LiveScience.com, April 9, 2010). "Despite their aggressive behavior, bullies also want affection, Veenstra said. His work has shown that bullies care about the approval of their own in-group, so they strategically pick victims they know few other classmates will defend" (ibid.).
In addition to the lack of resistance many bullies receive, their behavior is often excused or encouraged by adults. The mother of one of the teens charged as a juvenile in the death of Phoebe Prince excused her daughter's behavior and blamed the victim ("Mom of teen charged with bullying South Hadley H.S. student Phoebe Prince into suicide blames victim," New York Daily News, March 30, 2010). Young people also witness aggressive and disrespectful everyday conduct in the world all around them, whether through tailgating drivers or arguments between parents. It is little wonder that bullying continues.
The advent of "social media" has taken the problem of bullying to a whole new level. Bullying in past generations was primarily associated with certain places, but technology now makes it possible almost anywhere and at any time.
Aggressive, intentional and repeated acts using cell phones and computers are known as cyberbullying, and have become a way to intensify the onslaught of abuse. Cyberbullying can involve:
- Sending mean, vulgar, or threatening messages or images
- Posting sensitive, private information and/or lies about another person
- Pretending to be someone else in order to make that person look bad
- Intentionally excluding someone from an online group
Important ways in which cyberbullying is different from traditional forms of bullying include:
- It can occur any time of the day or night.
- Its messages and images can be distributed quickly to a very wide audience.
- Children and youth can be anonymous when cyberbullying, which makes it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to trace. (Source: stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov).
For teens who use technology as a primary form of social interaction, cyber-attacks can be as damaging as physical abuse. John Palfrey, author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, observed: "I think it's somewhat more explosive to spread a rumor on the Internet. Because it spreads so quickly, and the scale, the scope of it can be much greater. One of the things you hear from people who have been the victim of a malicious rumor is that the hurt is more, because so many people could have seen it so quickly and it's so hard to respond to it" ("Q&A with David Pogue: Rumors, Cyberbullying and Anonymity," New York Times, July 22, 2010). One thing is sure: with the increased availability of technology, the problem of teen bullying is growing. What can you do if you are a victim of bullying?
If you are a teen being bullied, you know how hard it can be to know what to do. But help is available, and there are steps you can take, however difficult they may seem:
- Pray: This is the place to start, because you want God's help. When he was still young, David faced bullying from King Saul, the most powerful man in Israel. Jealous Saul was intent on physically harming David. His persecution lasted for years. During this time, David recorded many of his prayers for us to read in the Bible. Notice: "The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from my enemies" (Psalm 18:2–3).
- Tell a trusted adult: As much as you may fear this step, you need to let someone in authority know what is happening. It is normal to feel overwhelmed when you are bullied, which is why someone with more experience needs to be involved. If you have already done this and nothing has changed, tell another adult. When you do find someone who is able and wants to help, let him or her know everything: who is bullying you, where it has happened, how long it has been going on, and how it makes you feel. This applies to cyber-bullying, too. Ask the adult to help you deal with the problem.
- Use available resources: Many people are committed in the battle against bullying. Many schools and law enforcement agencies have instituted bullying prevention programs. Do not overlook ministers and parents as potential sources of help. Remember, there are helpful Web sites that can give you suggestions as to how to handle the problem; another such site is www.pacerteensagainstbullying.org.
Help is available. There is a way out, and no one needs to face bullying alone.
If you are one who intimidates others through bullying, you need to stop! This is not just for the sake of your victims, but also for you. According to Teens Against Bullying, 25 percent of young people who bully have a criminal record by the time they are 30 years old. Is that what you want for your life? Some bullies strike out at others as a reaction to abuse they themselves are receiving. If this is your situation, take the same steps suggested above for those who are being bullied. There are more productive ways to deal with your problems than to ruin someone else's life.
Ask yourself: "What kind of person do I want to be?" Although it may sound trite, the best reason to stop bullying can be found in a principle Jesus Christ taught nearly 2,000 years ago: "Treat others the same way you want them to treat you" (Luke 6:31, New American Standard Bible). Consider how you would feel if you were the victim of bullying. Pretty miserable, right?
Whether you are the bully or the bullied, look to Jesus Christ for His example and His help. Use the resources He has made available around you, and let Him change your life.