Human beings are hard-wired to belong. We are social beings and we derive happiness from positive interactions with other living creatures, especially people. What happens when we are rejected? We can experience very real psychological and physical symptoms of pain, such as anxiety, depression, stomachaches, sleeplessness, headaches and panic attacks.
I have noticed a continuing theme, however, in the comments that respond to articles about bullying prevention. "I was bullied 10 years ago," wrote one man on a recent article of mine, "and I beat the guy up and he never bothered me again. Stop turning kids today into p*ssies. Being bullied makes them stronger."
After seeing this same type of response hundreds of times, I puzzled over it -- truly considered it -- and I've come to one glaring conclusion: "Ten years ago" is the problem. I looked back over some of my older works, and there is a commonality. Almost all of these toughened-up former victims of bullying are now adults.
They have no shared definition of what it means to be bullied today. Based on their memories, their advice feels valid to them. But being bullied 10 or 20 or 50 years ago does not qualify you to dismiss those who are being bullied today.
Largely, it is because of the digital revolution. Kids live and breathe social media. A few years back, it was MySpace. Then the hot thing became Facebook. As Facebook takes more steps to combat abuse, teens are shifting to Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr, although now Twitter has added a Report Abuse button, too. Every time moms and dads develop an interest in a social media site, the kids move on to the next one, trying to find a cool new unmonitored place to hang out.
And these days, when a kid is bullied, maybe it starts with being shoved into lockers and beaten up on the playground. So, let's say a kid fights back and beats up his bully. But then the kid starts receiving vicious tweets. Then he learns that there is a Facebook page where people are writing cruel epithets.
Who does he beat up to make that stop? He can't. The nameless faceless bullies of the Internet creep into his consciousness and torment him. Or the girl who finds out that hundreds of people are sharing a photo-shopped nude picture of her having sex with three guys and calling her a slut -- who is she supposed to beat up to make it stop? That advice is too simplistic.
And as far as the assertion that being bullied makes you stronger? There is an entire chapter in my book devoted to the harmful effects of bullying on the brain, where you will learn of multiple studies (1) that show how being bullied not only causes immediate distress but also changes the way the brain works and leads to long-term difficulties for survivors. For example, kids who have been severely bullied can have trouble years later in the workplace, because they perceive harmless interactions as threatening. Their bodies are in a permanent state of fight or flight. They exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Instead of dismissing the victims of bullying as weaklings who are in need of toughening up, how about approaching the problem of bullying from a relational point of view? There are multiple issues that contribute to the severity of bullying in today's culture. Yes, we should help empower victims. But we also need to educate and teach empathy and tolerance to those who act as bullies.
If you think the only two parties involved in bullying are the aggressors and the targets, think again.
The bystanders who click "like" on vicious Facebook status updates and who retweet cruel tweets are part of the problem. The companies that churn out mounds of advertisements and products sexualizing women and children are culpable, because sexualization is rooted in misogyny and homophobia. The TV shows and movies that rely on stereotypes for cheap laughs in their story lines contribute to the problem. The media, with their endless focus on looks and money and power, feed the frenzy of entitlement that enables bullying. The ugly competitiveness between people, each trying to reach the top, leads to underhanded behaviors that harm us all.
The answers? Collaboration. Empathy. Education. Awareness. Endlessly advocating for change. Practicing how to do better. Chipping away at outdated thinking and stigma. The brain has a remarkable capacity to heal, when given care and nurturing.
(1) J. Knack, H. L. Gomez, and L. A. Jensen-Campbell, "Bullying and Its Long-Term Health Implications," in Social Pain: Neuropsychological and Health Implications of Loss and Exclusion, ed. L. A. Jensen-Campbell and G. MacDonald, 215-36 (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2011).
Carrie is the author of the award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.
This article first appeared on Carrie's blog, Portrait of an Adoption, on 8/6/13.