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Elizabeth Perle Headshot

We Are The Real Bullies

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This bullying really has to stop.

Before you get started on your next "It Gets Better" video, let me just add: I'm not talking about teen bullying. I'm talking about the dangerous narratives adults are writing about bullying in our schools, which are, in turn, influencing the legislation meant to address this critical problem. If we aren't talking about these issues in authentic and productive ways, how can the laws we pass in response to these tragedies help prevent them in the future?

By vilifying children and fetishizing bullying, we're blaming kids for a systemic, cultural problem and taking the onus off adults. Instead of telling these kids why their actions are wrong, we should be asking -- what else is going on? This behaviour doesn't happen in a vacuum.

I do not believe that when kids treat each other terribly there should be no consequences, and I understand that our concern comes from a genuine desire to help young people in difficult situations. But a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the situation and the way it's connected to a problem outside of our schools is causing solutions to fall very short -- and sometimes replicate the harm they seek to prevent.

Youth researcher danah boyd gets to the heart of the issue in her piece "Bullying Has Little Resonance With Teenagers." She writes:

"Lectures by uncool old people like me aren't going to make teens who are engaged in dramas think twice about what they're doing. And, for that matter, using the term 'bullying' is also not going to help at all either. We need interventions that focus on building empathy, identifying escalation, and techniques for stopping the cycles of abuse. We need to create environments where young people don't get validated for negative attention and where they don't see relationship drama as part of normal adult life."

Media focus on suicide is also a cause for concern -- we're not talking about the kids that don't kill themselves (or, when we do, we accuse them of lying about the bullying, because we only want our teen narratives to be tragic). And never mind that coverage of these stories rarely follows best guidelines on how to cover suicide without instigating copy cats.

Last year, Emily Bazelon from Slate.com wrote a three-part series about Phoebe Prince, a teenager who committed suicide after being bullied at her high school in South Hadley, Mass. National media (as well as the district attorney) presented Prince's suicide as the direct result of the bullying she endured. Consequently, five classmates were charged. Bazelon's reporting broke down the constructed narrative that held these teens responsible for her death, revealing a suicide story far more complicated and no less tragic. It was a story no one wanted to hear; a narrative where the adults involved, both leading up to the event and in its treatment afterwards, failed a group of young people -- both bullies and bullied.

Does it make us feel better about ourselves when we take down another teenage bully? It's time to pick on someone our own size.

To take a step back, I wonder what it actually is we are talking about when we use the term "bullying" in the media. Is it shorthand for teens who are expressing cultural or societal prejudices in the form of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination?

If so, those are, indeed, problems, but bullying (particularly in recent news) seems to have become the leading LGBT issue on everyone's mind right now. And it's understandable: stories about young people are headline catching, and even more than that, we are moved to take action by children in danger.

However, my concern is that homophobic bullying is not necessarily an issue that forces government officials from lip service and YouTube videos into action. After all, how are your elected representatives going to get some 15-year-old kid to stop making fun of his classmate?

Just this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in a Human Rights Day statement, called homophobic bullying a "public health crisis." Perhaps this has been the most productive framework around bullying I've heard so far. Public health problems have public health solutions. They are not about individual or criminal behaviors.

Educating kids about bullying isn't enough. It isn't just a failure of parent, teachers, and other educators directly responsible for children. It's a failure of communities. It's a failure of a health care system that doesn't adequately or consistently provide mental health support services that so many people could benefit from. It's a failure of grown ups.