Last month, I was at a Barnes & Noble with my nieces for some play time and children’s reading. My 3-year-old niece (we’ll call her Sophie) walked over to the toy train set up on a table, and I made sure to stay close enough to monitor things from where I was sitting. A boy slightly older than her was hard at play when she picked up one of the train cars (one that he wasn’t playing with) to put on a different part of the track. But the boy wouldn’t have it, and grabbed the car she had chosen to reclaim it. He scowled at her for a second before returning to what he’d been doing. I walked over to comfort Sophie since she looked like she was about to cry–but she didn’t. I asked if she wanted to play at another toy station–but she said no.
Instead, she turned to face the boy.
She put her hands on her hips.
And in her very serious voice, she defended herself.
“There’s no sharing with you,” she told him.
He then stopped what he was doing, picked up the disputed train car, and handed it to her. “Here, you can play too,” he said. I returned to where I’d been sitting, truly amazed by their exchange, and watched them play together for the next 15 minutes.
Although this instance of aggression ended with both kids leaving better off than before the interaction, most bullying does not end this way and is not limited to a single occurrence. Bullying is most often described as:
an individual or a group repeatedly harming another person– physically (e.g., punching or pushing), verbally (e.g., teasing or name-calling), or socially (e.g., ostracizing or spreading hurtful rumors).
The Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education identifies the following ways (quoted verbatim below) that bullying directly affects children’s health and well-being:
As well as other equally damaging effects such as “lowered academic achievement and aspirations; feelings of alienation in the school environment, such as fear of other children; and absenteeism from school.”
Bullying quite often involves more than one aggressor; while it may be initiated by one person, other peers often join in without much pause or consideration for the victim being bullied, or what is being said about them. We’ve seen how this type of mob mentality or groupthink has been facilitated by social media; where anyone can join in a “like if you hate” page with a simple mouse click or post a malicious comment from behind the safety of their computer screen.
Indeed, in today’s digital world, bullying has evolved and moved beyond school walls and playgrounds. This newer breed of bullying–called cyber-bullying–is described as ”willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Cyber-bullying can often be even more damaging to a person’s mental health than traditional bullying because physical distance (being at home or on vacation) no longer provides a buffer from verbal abuse or hurtful rumors, as illustrated by the two examples below.
This is Felicia Garcia. Felicia was a 15-year-old student at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, NY.
She was known to be quick with a joke if someone tried to bully her–bullying is common at Tottenville, but the school is serious about intervening any time an incident is brought to their attention. In Felicia’s case, it seems the bullying started after a sexual encounter with members of the high school football team at a victory party.
After this point, the details get hazy. According to one report, the encounter was recorded and then shared with other students at the school. What is certain is that the bullying started after this sexual encounter, occurred at school and online, and prompted her to post this tweet on Monday, October 22, 2012:
School administrators scheduled a mediation session with Felicia and one of the offending students (most of whom were members of the football team) on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. The student denied the bullying accusations. After this session, Felicia ran into another of her bullies in the school hallway, with whom she “exchanged some words,” but no details were found as to what was said.
The New York Post reports that while students were waiting for the train after school at the Huguenot station, “a group of classmates, described by witnesses as members of the football team,” hurled insults and verbal abuse at her. As the train approached, she dropped her cell phone and book bag. Classmates standing next to her heard her last words “Finally, it’s here” as she jumped backwards off the platform. A friend tried to stop her by grabbing her arm, but Felicia twisted it free. She died later that evening on October 24.
Although what happened to Felicia was tragic and terrible, her experience is sadly not uncommon.
This is Amanda Todd.
You can read (watch) the full details of her harrowing story, in her own words, in this video which she made before she committed suicide.
Amanda was ruthlessly stalked and cyber-bullied for flashing her breasts to an anonymous man in a chat room when she was 12. Unbeknown to her, that moment was photographed, and a year after the incident, the same man contacted her and threatened to send that picture to her school, her family, and friends if she did not “put on a show” for him. She refused, and he followed through on his threat. Her bullies were both numerous and relentless, barraging her at school and online. Moving didn’t help. Switching schools didn’t help. Each time, her stalker was able to find her and continue his torment. After her first suicide attempt failed (she was rushed to the hospital after drinking bleach), her classmates told her to “try again.” Amanda ended her life one month after telling her story on YouTube.
It’s hard to imagine their stories getting any worse, but the hateful comments and bullying directed at these two young women have continued even after their death. I refuse to post those comments on this blog, but I find it truly heartbreaking that such comments can be found even on pages that have been created in their memory.
What these girls experienced was not just bullying or cyber-bullying; the insults and hate speech they suffered as a direct result of their sexual choices adds a definite gender element which is not often discussed in their stories. Yes, they were bullied; but perhaps the more appropriate word for what they experienced is “slut-shame.” A thorough examination of the origins and history of slut-shaming (sometimes called “slut-bashing”) can be found here, but in brief, it is the practice of
shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings. Furthermore, it’s “about the implication that if a woman has sex that traditional society disapproves of, she should feel guilty and inferior” (Alon Levy, Slut Shaming). … It should be noted that slut-shaming can occur even if the term “slut” itself is not used.
I plan to do a more in-depth study of slut-shaming and how it relates to the recent reports of violence against women in India and Egypt (and right here in the US), as a future topic for another month. But for now, let’s get back to discussing bullying.
How common is it?
Let’s talk numbers.
Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation.
The National Education Association released a nationwide study of bullying in 2011. Their study found that:
43 percent of surveyed teachers and staff reported that bullying was a “moderate or major problem” at their elementary or high school;
62 percent of surveyed teachers and staff had witnessed 2 or more occurrences of bullying in the past month;
and 41 percent of surveyed teachers and staff witnessed bullying occur at least once a week.
While these numbers speak of bullying experienced by students in general, other reports show us that autistic students experience even higher levels of bullying than their non-autistic classmates.
Similarly, a 2011 National School Climate Survey found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth also experience higher levels of bullying than their non-LGBT classmates, citing that:
about 80 percent of LGBT students reported being “harassed” at school in the past year;
about 64 percent of LGBT students reported “feeling unsafe” at school in the past year;
and about 30 percent of LGBT students reported skipping a day of school in the past month out of concern for their safety.
So where does this leave us? Has anything changed since Felicia’s death? Or Amanda’s? Or what about Tyler Clementi? Or the countless other students who are bullied by their peers? In my upcoming posts I’ll discuss newly developed anti-bullying programs, as well as a look at the documentary “Bully,” and what’s changed since the film’s release… Stay tuned.