In both my scheduled workshops and my casual conversations on the topic of bullying, professionals and parents often ask me, "Is bullying really worse today than it was when we were kids?"
My answer to that question is an emphatic, "Yes."
The 24/7 availability of cell phones, instant messaging, e-mails and social networking sites have intensified the impact of bullying, giving young people private ways to humiliate each other under-the-radar of adults and public ways to spread rumors and gossip to large-scale audiences. At the same time, groundbreaking books such as Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees & Wannabees (the basis for the Hollywood movie, Mean Girls), Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out, and Lee Hirsch's recent documentary film Bully," have shined a spotlight on a phenomena that existed too often in secret for generations.
In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Hirsch wrote, "After many screenings, I have been approached by people who were bullied ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, who never told another person about their torment and abuse." Indeed, studies show that bullying is such a painful and humiliating experience that most people never tell others about what they are going through.
All of the recent media attention on bullying has given untold numbers of victims -- past and present -- a voice to share their experiences, now that they finally realize that they are not alone.
"Are we just talking about it more?" people ask me.
"Yes," I answer. "Finally, we are talking about it more!"
Now, there is often a difference between the question being spoken and the question being asked. I understand that when some professionals or parents ask me "Are we just talking about it more?" their question is coming from a place of skepticism; what they really want to know is, "Are we just making a big deal out of nothing?"
Interestingly, I rarely get the opportunity to have first dibs on answering this roundabout question. Whenever it is asked in a group setting, parents who have walked through the fires of bullying alongside their child are first to stand up and give their emotional, heart-wrenching testimonials about how relentless and virile today's bullying can be. I challenge anyone to maintain a "kids will be kids" mentality after hearing a mother describe how her daughter receives nightly text messages to "kill yourself and get it over with already." I have yet to witness any workshop attendee maintain his skepticism about the epidemic of bullying after listening to a 14-year-old girl confess to her failed suicide attempt -- her desperate response to three endless years of being called a "whore" (she is a virgin) and a "druggie" (she has never used drugs) by her "friends" at school.
Rather than becoming accustomed to the stories I hear from young people, parents, teachers and counselors, I am instead more troubled and appalled every day by the types of verbal, physical and relational aggression that young people face today. "Are we just making a big deal out of nothing?" some people may imply. "Not on your life," eyewitnesses confirm.
Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker, national educator on bullying, and author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying. For workshop information, please visit www.signewhitson.com. "Like" Signe on Facebook or Follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.