Friday, October 1, 2010

Bullies: Wielding Their Mighty Swords

Many of you have heard the horrible story about the young man at Rutgers University who committed suicide. His roommate posted a video online of him involved in a gay encounter with another man. Within a matter of seconds everyone knew. Everyone. For me this story isn't really about homosexuality but instead about a growing problem we have in this country with bullying. As I thought about this awful story over the past few days I started wondering why...why are we hearing so many more stories of young people ending their lives over bullying? Bullying has been around forever, right? So what has changed?

For my generation - remember back to when we were in junior high or high school. There were kids that got teased and picked on, right? Kids that were different. Whether you were a part of that teasing or not, think about "how" that teasing or bullying was done. Through verbal exchanges at school. Through gossiping on the phone in the evening if your parents allowed you to have a phone in your room. And through the most popular method, passing notes in class. Wow - passing notes. Now think about today's generation. If they want to make some one's life a living hell all they have to do is post nasty comments on myspace or twitter or facebook get the point. The bullies of today can wield their mighty swords in a more profound way. They are going to be able to cut much deeper than we ever could.

I think a little bit of teasing and getting picked on is a natural part of growing up. Call me old fashioned. I think it is a part of adolescence that no one is exempt from. Even the most popular kids are subject to the occasional jab. But maybe today's teens are meaner or more self-absorbed (I think so) but maybe not. Maybe kids are bullied more aggressively (I think so) but maybe not. Either way, that's not the problem. The problem is the way the bullying is done. If someone passes a nasty note about "Joe" and "Kevin" caught kissing behind the school building, that note reaches one person. Then you have to wait for the gossip mill to pass the info along. Even when it does finally reach everyone - there's nothing tangible there. No video, no photos, no blog. But, if someone posts a video of "Joe" and "Kevin" kissing everyone knows immediately and even worse yet - now there is proof.

So what can we do about this? How can we, as a society, cut down on the senseless bullying-induced suicides that we have been hearing about? Corporations have sensitivity training but young people are much too immature to get the value of something like that. If anything, it would probably just fuel the fire. "Oh, poor Joe and Kevin. We're sorry you feel so misunderstood. Let's just all be friends." I can practically hear the sarcastic dialogue in my head. Then what? We can't take away the Internet. Like it or not, technology is only going to get bigger and better and young people are going to continue to be drawn to it.

It feels like this is the point in my blog where I'm supposed to say: "here's what we need to do" - but I honestly don't know. I think of my own kids and the likelihood that they will be the target of bullying someday because they are different. Especially Jessica whose whole world, already at age 5, revolves around (1) boys and (2)having friends and being liked. How devastated would she be if someone decided to play a "joke" and have a boy pretend to like her, only in the end for all their emails to be shared online for everyone to laugh at. How would she react? As a parent, all I can hope for is that she and I have the kind of relationship where she feels like she can talk to me. I remember running home after school and telling my mom all about my day. In high school she knew who everyone was dating; what the latest gossip was; in general, she was involved. Sometimes she had to pry it out of me, but she always "knew" when something wasn't right with me. She "knew" when I broke up with a boyfriend or when I was fighting with my friends. She paid attention. And I know she wasn't above reading notes she'd find laying around. "Privacy rights" were different with my generation. All I can hope for is that I am that kind of mom. It may not be an answer to our problems as a society, but right now, it's all I've got.

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