Recently at the park my kids were the target of an older boy hurling sticks and calling them profanities.
On the way home in the car, my adolescent son explains how, while they tried their best to "deal with it," they were ducking some fairly large sticks, one of which almost clocked him in the head. Then he says, "Everyone knows that guy. He's just an old school bully."
"What's an 'old school' bully?' I ask.
"Someone who finds little kids on the bus and says, 'I'll beat you up if you don't give me your lunch.' Stuff like that. Old school."
"So if that's old school, then what's new school bullying?' I ask.
"Oh mom," says my teen says, rolling his eyes, "You know what it is."
"No. Tell me what you mean," I say.
Truthfully, I'm not so clued out. But this is how I learn what's really going on in my kids' lives. Feign ignorance and then listen.
And in the car is where some of our best conversations happen. My boys tend to talk more when there's movement. So as we travel the road home, I learn what my teen and tween are feeling and experiencing, and how they are managing it all.
New school bullying is a term recently adapted by my kids to coin a term familiar to us all: cyber-bullying. And while we may become desensitized after hearing about online bullying for years, the impacts of this pervasive type of harassment are not on the decline.
My kids explain that new school bullying happens through (temporarily) removing some of the physical threat to a person's safety and dignity and channeling that attack into the removed, detached, and virally shared world of online and social media. The indignity, shame, and embarrassment that may result from a new school bully's actions, however, result in real world distress.
About a quarter of all children experience new school bullying, and the outcome of that bullying is depression, fear, and trauma. Worse, the news is littered with stories of online bullying leading to both violence and suicide.
And the irony is, new school bullying happens via the smart phones and tablets placed in the hands of children by their parents.
It happens not only at home, but through the day, at school, where kids are stationed to learn academics, build character, aspire to become citizens and leaders, and develop empathy. (Listen to M.I.T. Professor Sherry Turkle, author of "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age," discuss how pervasive technology use at school is impacting kids' ability to show empathy.)
New school bullying is perpetrated by a relatively small percentage of our children, who, harnessing powerful technology, can create extensive distress. And the new school bully is often frighteningly unaware of the damage they are causing to others, and themselves, through their online activities.
New school bullying also creates a whole new group of bystanders who may feel powerless. They see something is wrong, but in some way, it feels not quite real. It's not face to face, and the "intent" can be suspect ("Hey, can't you take a joke?"). In the online world the bulk of real human reaction is suspended and replaced with a comment box. So the new school bully may experience little in-the-moment ramification for their actions.
New school bullying ranges from forwarding personal messages without the original author's consent, to targeted harassment, and everything in between. Kids witness online bullying and inadvertently become bystanders when they aren't even online themselves. Our kids may have a friend who is receiving threatening messages and they may not know how to respond effectively to help. Or they may be, literally, 'standing by' in class beside a group huddling around a smart phone opened to Instagram, where they see a photo of a girl from the school. She used to be on the inside of the clique, and now she's not. What they see is a modified picture, with a red circle around her head and the word "bitch" written underneath it. As bystanders, our kids need to be equipped with tools to respond.
With new school bullying, bystanders can amass by the tens, hundreds, and thousands. Audiences of bystanders may watch a perpetrator who is ill-equipped to deal with their own conflicts in person, then vent online and damage character of someone else, all while avoiding the truly courageous act of working something out, in real, face to face, human time.
"So what do you do you think you can do about this?" I ask.
"Nothing," says one of my sons.
"Nothing," says another.
"Nothing? Why?" I ask.
Exasperated sigh. "Because they will Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook about you even more. That's why. And there's nothing you can do about it."
"Wow, that sounds tough," I say, "I'm not sure I agree there's no recourse. They are causing real damage and there are real actions to take in response, but it can feel like there is nothing you can do sometimes, can't it? Being on the receiving end of that feels kind of like getting a 'knife in the back.'"
Then I ask them to tell me what the perpetrators' "followers" are doing about it, either online or in person.
One of my boys reflects on what he sees in the school hallways. "The followers don't really even seem to like the few leaders who are posting stuff or saying nasty things to other people in the school, but they just follow them because, I don't know, maybe they're afraid. The leaders try to do things to make other people think they're powerful. So they have reluctant followers who kind of tag along. You can see they feel bad, but they follow anyway, because they're too scared to stand up."
I have always been impressed by the capacity of my children to unpack some of the complexities of our social world that have the potential to become unpleasant: group think, the need for belonging, and along with it, some of the ugliness people will support or ignore in the hopes of being accepted.
But what I see now is that my boys also recognize the hallmarks of shame.
Shame lives in the person who averts their eyes, won't stand up, and follows a new school, or old school, bully even though they know it's wrong.
Every time any one of us who has learned there is a better way, instead stays quiet and watches, or participates in any assault on another without saying "no" and "enough" we load our bodies with shame that sinks our shoulders and bows our heads.
On the rest of the drive my boys and I talk, a lot. We talk about what it means to treat people with respect and dignity. We discuss what Dr. Christiane Northrup defines as a tenet of healthy living: righteous anger, which, tapped into, helps us stand up for ourselves and others.
I share my own failures (I too, have exercised both my vocal chords and keyboard in ways that I've later thought, face burning with that familiar rush of regret, "Why did I do that?"). But I also talk about some hard earned successes where I've done the skillful thing as well. Its through reflecting on both the falls and the rises that we come to know ourselves better, and then do better.
Then, we talk about how to live with integrity, regardless of what those around us are doing, regardless of if we don't "belong." Because no sense of belonging is worth trading away our integrity over.
And finally, we talk about how to transform righteous anger at injustice into courageous action, to not get stuck in fear or powerlessness.
Because this is the truth: there is always something you can do.
And what we, as parents and educators need to do is have ongoing, transparent discussions about how we will navigate the terrain of online communication with our children.
We can start speaking the truth about what's happening, instead of downplaying, ignoring, or denying the reality of what we or our kids are participating in, witnessing, or experiencing. We can have these truth talks at the dinner table with our families, in our communities, in our organizations, and in our schools. We can create clear approaches for what to do when we experience new school bullying. And we can both step up and seek intervention when we, or someone we know, is being bullied.
As adults, we can model for our children how they can learn and grow both in their online and in-person interactions. We may need to ask ourselves the tough questions, such as, "Have I ever participated in cyber bullying, online character assassination, shaming, put downs, or the like, and how am I going to change my own behaviour first?"
And we can understand this: if we are enabling our children by handing them tablets and smart phones that they can potentially turn into weapons, then we have a wholesale responsibility to know what they are doing with the technology, who they are impacting, what they are experiencing themselves, and how they are managing the riptide so they aren't swept out to sea.
And schools, too, are responsible. When our children are under school supervision, the school is their guardian. Schools have a widespread obligation to ensure the tools they are allowing on school grounds are not turned into weapons. Use on school time means school responsibility.
As adults we can exercise our capacity to become the leaders who model the value of face to face, courageous communication. It's tough work. From personal experience I can attest that we will fail, and that the falls can feel hard to crawl out of. But I also believe that if we are willing to accept our own, and others' human imperfection, and forgive, we can pick ourselves up, and try again. Because modelling perfection is not the goal. Modelling what Brene Brown describes in several of her books on courage and vulnerability as being "wholehearted" and staying "in the arena," is.
Yes, it's tough. But apathy, ignorance, and avoidance aren't alternatives. Because when it comes to bullying none of us should have to make the fool's choice between fending off an old school stick in the head, or a new school knife in the back.