Why Bullying Has Changed and What We Can Do About It

June 1st, 2012

I’ll be honest with you in saying that I’m a little perplexed by all the attention bullying gets these days. Let me establish for the record that bullying is wrong! But unfortunately, bullying has long been a pseudo rite of passage of the adolescent experience. Therefore, it’s almost to be expected unless you firmly establish yourself as the alpha-male or -female. So why has bullying escalated to the point that kids are killing themselves and/or others as a result?

It used to be if you were bullied you had a couple of options of how to deal with it. You teased your bully right back. You ignored your bully or pretended to ignore them, then cried when you got home. You found someone weaker than you to tease instead. You could gain some perspective and compassion by talking to a parent or mentor.

You could do all those things, but the one thing you didn’t do was terminate the life of others, yourself, or both. I am perplexed by the hopelessness that would lead someone to take lives as a result of bullying.

However, I have to keep in mind that in similar fashion . . .

It used to be that if you were a bully, you had a couple of options of how and when to do it. You basically had the seven hours of the school day plus the time on the bus within which to harass others. For the most part, your tactics were limited to teasing, intimidation, and word-of-mouth gossip. If you were really creative, you could utilize the medium of posters, fliers and notes to be passed around hand-to-hand. Nowadays, bullies can do their work 24/7/365, utilizing Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, and other media devices equipped with programs to Photoshop pictures designed to humiliate people. With this technology, they can bully from anywhere, at anytime, and let it go viral! When I was in middle and high school, the worst that could happen was the whole school finding out what was said about you or something embarrassing that happened. Now, with the blossoming of the Internet, it can reach more recipients than ever before.

In the face of these changes, we who work with youth can help students gain perspective on what they are going through now. Some questions to consider:

Does our “everyone is a winner and no one loses” culture set children up for severe disillusionment in adolescence?

This is not meant to be accusatory of parents. It is an honest question. If kids are constantly getting a pat on the back, getting trophies for placement other than first, second, or third, and not keeping score in recreational sports leagues so that no one loses, have we prepared them for future disappointment, loss, and even failure? Disappointment, loss, and failure are all a part of life and learning. In order to become a fully formed adult, one must possess the maturity to handle disappointment, loss, and failure in healthy ways.

Not to suggest that we should swing the pendulum to the other side and make kids feel as though they can’t succeed in anything, but no one succeeds at everything. A few years back, I had a conversation with the mom of a college student. She was telling me how so many of her daughter’s peers were on some sort of medication or antidepressant because they had never learned to cope with the stresses of life, like disappoint, loss, and failure.

Has the breadth of technology’s reach rendered our perspective irrelevant to today’s youth?

When I was frustrated with being teased and harassed, and with my seemingly insignificant social status, my parents used to tell me, “Cedric, the world is bigger than Lincoln High School. The world is bigger than Ypsilanti.” Those words were meant to convey the reality, contrary to how I felt, that my high school experience was only four years long, and not the end of the world. It didn’t take long after high school for me to realize how true those sentiments were.

However, would it have been more difficult to believe them with the Internet and social media making the world even smaller? An embarrassing story or picture has a longer shelf life when it goes viral. Those who are bullied need to understand the power of stepping away from the computer. There is a whole world out there that is not obsessed with Internet gossip.

The reality is that this stands to be even more damaging for the future of bullies than it does for those who are bullied. Colleges, universities, and employers use social media as a way to get a fuller portrait of the character of those they consider for acceptance. It’s all fun and games until you discover that teasing, harassing and bullying others in cyberspace has been discovered and subsequently frowned upon by prospective colleges and employers.

How do we discover compassion and love for our enemies? Have the fundamental reasons behind bullying changed all that much over time?

I didn’t realize this when I was bullied, but I’ve become convinced that bullies are struggling with significant issues of insecurity and may even be the target of bullying at home.

There was one person who absolutely had it out for me during our freshman year of high school. I have no idea to this day why he made it his mission to make my life miserable, but he was really good at it. All of the sudden, he went from being the quarterback of the varsity football team as a freshman to sitting at a table by himself our sophomore year, high as a kite on marijuana or worse. By our junior year he was gone; a drop out. I have no idea what happened to him. Now, having gained a little perspective, I feel sorry for him. I can’t help but think there were some significant issues in his life that served as a catalyst to his decline, including being unapologetically cruel to me and to others. I just wish I had the vision that enables me to have some compassion for him now back when I was experiencing it.

Who is the joke really on if you always have to clarify that “you’re just kidding”?

Proverbs 26:18-19 says, “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, 'I am only joking!'”

My father first made me aware of this proverb when he was trying to show me the consequences of being sarcastic towards my mother. I would try to excuse my disrespect towards her by saying, “I’m just joking!” Some bullies are very passive aggressive, and they are usually the ones who will fire a quip or jab followed by “I’m just kidding” after they see the hurt on the face of their subject. They are crazy to think their jokes and sarcasm aren’t like firebrands, arrows, and death to the recipient of their witty comments.

What does it mean to be human?

Name-calling and labeling continue to be the weapon of choice amongst those who bully and tease others. In the past two years, nine students in the metro-Minneapolis area committed suicide. Of the nine, four had reported or indicated that they had been bullied because they were either gay or perceived as such by other kids.

I know what it is like to be name-called. I was called all sorts of names that go hand-in-hand with being accused of being gay, simply because I was an unashamed virgin practicing abstinence. I struggled with deep self-esteem and self-worth issues, but I never reached a point of despair that led me to consider suicide as an option. Sure, a lot of that has to do with being a Christian, but not because I feared the judgment I would incur for enacting those options. It had more to do with my understanding of the Christian story beginning with the human being and its role as an image bearer of a good God who created life, light and countless good things. I decided that I should let that be the label that defined me, as opposed to my sexual behaviors and preferences, my ethnic identity, or my interests and hobbies. We must help youth learn their true value as children of God.

Shaped by Hope

The rash of suicides in our society due to bullying is the part that perplexes me the most. When I was in middle and high school, these incidents seemed to be rarer than they are now. As I’ve said earlier, and as I’m sure many from previous generations would agree, my peers and I never reached the point of despair, no matter how much we were bullied or teased. Only despair would lead someone to do something as irreversible as killing themselves or others.

I recently heard someone say, “Human beings are creatures shaped by hope.” I believe that is absolutely true. I think the Christian story gives the most satisfying answer to why we need hope, and the ultimate source of hope for humanity. This hope has helped people endure some of the worst suffering the world has ever seen.

Here are a few practical things I think we can do about bullying as Christians for the good of all:

  • Equip students with the perspective and hope that will allow them to endure bullying directed at them personally.
  • Stand up for and defend others who are bullied.
  • Treat bullies with love and respect based upon their own inherent value, despite their actions.

Although not everyone believes the Christian story to be an answer for everything, Christians need to bring hope to anyone who doesn’t have it. All human beings have an intrinsic, priceless value simply because they are designed in the likeness of and created by an eternal and infinitely powerful God. Therefore, Christians are to do anything about bullying, their response requires that they have compassion towards both the bullied and bullies alike.

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