Are Anti-Bullying Campaigns Missing the Point?


By Jesse Walker

The anthropologist danah boyd points out a problem with some well-meaning efforts to prevent bullying:

I attend conferences and hear from parents and journalists who are talking about the bullying pandemic. And then I talk with teenagers about their social dramas, producing the interactions that adults identify as bullying. I hear from well-meaning adults about how they want to create interventions to help teenagers with bullying. And then I hear teens complain about the assemblies and messaging that they're forced to listen to that don't even begin to resonate with them. Whenever I talk to folks about bullying, I'm forced to confront the fact that adults and teens are talking past one another....

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.

Part of the problem, boyd adds, is that a lot of "bullying" is mutual. Many times "one person thinks that they're not at fault and that they're simply a victim of bullying. But those who are engaged in the bullying see it entirely differently. They blame the person and see what they're doing as retaliation. None of this is communicated, of course, so things can quickly spiral out of control without anyone really knowing where it all began." Obviously this isn't the only sort of bullying that goes on, but it's common, and the current campaign misses it entirely.

boyd doesn't offer any suggestions as to what would diminish bullying. I don't have any proposals either, though I suspect that the culture of student-on-student abuse is baked into the very structure of many schools. I do feel fairly confident that the problem hasn't been invented that a student assembly can solve. Unless the problem is no more complicated than "How many kids can we fit into this gymnasium?"


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