Parenting Kids Today to Prevent Adult Bullying Tomorrow: Lessons from the Miami Dolphins bullying case
The independent investigation report into the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal was released today. I blogged about this story a couple of times last November because it really hit me deeply, because we care so much about the bullying problem, and because I’ve published a few academic articles on workplace harassment. I have previously discussed in detail the implications for society stemming from the situation, and also how the relevant institutions may have contributed to the problem.
The new report is pretty eye-opening. Here are the take-home points:
“The Report concludes that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. The Report finds that the assistant trainer repeatedly was the object of racial slurs and other racially derogatory language; that the other offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching; and that Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”
“The Report rejects any suggestion that Martin manufactured claims of abuse after the fact to cover up an impetuous decision to leave the team. Contemporaneous text messages that Martin sent to his parents and others months before he left the Dolphins—which have never before been made public—corroborate his account that the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress. The Report concludes that the harassment by Martin’s teammates was a contributing factor in his decision to leave the team, but also finds that Martin’s teammates did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury.”
The report concludes with a call to action, asking the NFL to create new conduct guidelines to promote peer respect in that unique workplace environment. I am sure there is more that will still come out, but it seems like Jonathan Martin may have cause to file a harassment lawsuit against the Dolphins. And, more importantly, we have victimization that took place, and continued extensive fallout and negative press for the organization and the NFL.
Okay – how is this relevant to our focus on teens? All of this has inspired me to really try to think through the issues. One thing I’ve honed in on is why some children grow up to be bullies, and why some grow up to be bullied. Perhaps those victimized deal with it during adolescence and then continue to face it during adulthood, without ever really learning what to do in these situations, and without ever receiving the help and guidance they might need. Perhaps children on the receiving end turn into adults who dish it out later in life, once again because they weren’t shown or taught how to cope and respond. And perhaps mean kids just become mean grownups, and stay that way no matter what because they too never got what they needed to change.
We never really know all of the facts (in this case, or in any bullying case), and the situations tend to be complex and laden with emotion. We also know that there are no cure-alls – parents can only do so much, and then have to let go and have faith that things will work out. But if you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Richie Incognito as an adult, you should:
Remain calm. Nothing is going to work if you try to tackle this while internally or externally freaking out.
Cultivate empathy. Get them to understand that words wound, and if they don’t have something nice to say, they really (and frankly) should keep their mouth shut.
Identify their “sore spot” – where they are especially sensitive. Discuss with them how they would feel if someone made fun of them for that personally sensitive issue.
Help them to appreciate all differences (race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, dress, personality, etc.) and never use them as a reason to exclude, reject, or embarrass another person.
Teach them that their way to be or act is not necessarily the right way. There often is no right way. People should be allowed to be people. People should be allowed to be who they are, whatever that is.
What may be a joke to them may actually be a cruel and hateful act to another. Everyone is wired differently; some can shrug off things easily, while others internalize them. This does not make them soft or weak. Personal traits perceived as a positive may be a negative in some situations, and vice versa.
Determine if they are dealing with any personal struggles which might be manifesting in harmful actions towards others.
The “birds of a feather” adage is typically true. Figure out if those with whom they hang out encourage or condone meanness and cruelty. Counter those messages as best as you can, with the help of others they look up to.
If you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Jonathan Martin as an adult, you should:
Remain calm. If you come to them all riled up and panicky, you’re not going to get through to them.
Teach them to never allow others to disrespect them or tear them down. They don’t have to subject themselves to that, even if it’s done in the name of “hazing” or forming a brotherhood or sisterhood.
Help them learn conflict resolution skills, as they may help diffuse small problems before they blow up.
Make sure they have multiple people they can always go to for help – someone who will definitely be their advocate and do everything possible to help them. Identify those individuals, and make sure they “check in” regularly to ensure your child or teen is doing okay.
Continually remain keyed in to their emotional and psychological health to detect warning signs that might point to struggles and issues that could benefit from professional help (counseling, etc.).
Be their biggest fan no matter what, and surround them with others who will pour into them and keep them encouraged in the midst of difficult life situations.
Immerse them in environments (inside or outside of school) among kids of character, where everyone stands up for each other and has each other’s backs.
These strategies won’t keep every kid from relational problems now or when they are grown up, but it will help them. Ideally, it will make them more emotionally healthy individuals who are less likely to be a jerk to others, who understand how they should and should not deal with conflict, and how to lean on others early on for support and assistance before situations get irreparably bad. The bottom line is that we have to be involved, and exercise due diligence now to prevent problems in the future. When you’re dealing with the messy fallout, you end up kicking yourself for not doing all you could to prevent it back when you had the chance. So start now – it’s totally worth it.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty.
What We’ve Learned About Cyberbullying in 2013
While Justin has recently posted a 2013 update on research-specific facts, I thought I’d provide a more general but broader update on all that we’ve learned and seen in the area of cyberbullying this year. Overall and in my opinion, it has been a great year and one that seems marked by solid progress made in schools, communities, and families who attempt to address and prevent harassment and hate online. Allow me to summarize my observations from 2013 below:
First, we have once again seen shifts in the popularity of various sites and apps among teens. Many times, the media is quick to demonize these online platforms and blame them specifically for promoting cyberbullying, but that is simply without merit.
We have repeatedly pointed out that cyberbullying is not the fault of the technology being used, but rather stems from root causes common to problems in human nature and human relationships. Simply put, cyberbullying arises when we have a population of teens who 1) are (naturally) struggling with their identity 2) dependent on peer perceptions for at least some of their self-worth 3) unable to always cope with stresses in their lives in a healthy way 4) unskilled in properly dealing with conflict 5) inconsiderate of the consequences of content shared or posted online 6) sometimes emotional, spontaneous, and shortsighted in their decision-making 7) lacking comprehensive education about etiquette, civility, empathy, and other socioemotional concepts both in the real world and online.
This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but those are the major factors. Please remember that the vast majority of users of a social network or app use it responsibly and properly. But there will be some who use it sometimes to harass, humiliate, or threaten others. Again, though, that is the minority (and often the vast minority) of users.
Second, we’ve spoken to tens of thousands of educators and students this year (and hundreds of thousands since we started). More and more of the policy and programming decisions being made in schools are informed, proactive, comprehensive, practical, and effective as compared to reactionary, misguided, piecemeal, ad-hoc, and disappointing in their utility. Years ago, many educators were simply not clued in to best practices that are currently evolving around the nation (and world) to deal with cyberbullying. They were often left to figure out things on their own, and this led to many well-intentioned but inappropriate methods of prevention and response. We have learned that technological restrictions and blocks are not very effective as kids have access to the Web on their smartphones in their pockets. We have learned that punitive responses – like suspending or expelling a kid – often don’t lead to a true change in behavior, nor deter the rest of the student body, nor always fit the offense (and overstepping one’s bounds in disciplinary measures may lead to lawsuits). We have learned that student assemblies work best when part of a larger multifaceted initiative (creating a positive school climate, social norming, student-led efforts, curriculum enhancements, staff and parent trainings) can be highly beneficial and valuable. As I stated in an AP article earlier this year, we ARE making progress. We should be encouraged. Outside of our Research Center, there are so many on the front lines of cyberbullying who are working very hard and making a real difference – and helping to get the right information into the hands of those who care for and work with teens. Our gratitude goes out to them as we continue fighting the good fight.
Finally, we are seeing great traction with efforts by teens to combat online cruelty with movements of kindness. We’ve fleshed this out in great detail in our latest book, but here I want to emphasize how big of a deal this is. If you are an educator, you understand that students themselves MUST lead the way. We’ve talked about Kevin Curwick, a (then) high-schooler who transformed his school via a Twitter account used to send out anonymous compliments to peers, and how this trend caught fire and led to students at many other schools doing the same thing on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. He recently said, “Being kind is popular at school now—that’s the thing to be. Things like this are needed. I’ve definitely seen a shift to a happier, lighter, more positive air around [my school]. You walk down the halls and see everyone smiling.” Here’s the kicker, according to Curwick, “Negativity gets people attention, but we can shift the tide, and use the Internet to be positive. A cool thing for me is bringing some hope about our generation.”
We completely agree. We’ve been to schools where – honestly – bullying and cyberbullying are not issues. They just aren’t. And this has been the result of lots of hard (but doable) work by students and educators there to cultivate and maintain an environment where people simply care about one another. That’s just how they do things there. And that simple philosophy has infiltrated all areas of interaction at that school. And all members of that school community subscribe to an informal “social contract” of sorts that perpetuates positive behaviors. It’s awesome. And it’s what is needed.
We wish you the best for 2014 as you tackle these issues at your school, and hope for small and large victories resulting from your efforts! As we keep you updated on what we’re learning, we’d love to hear from you about what you’re learning in the trenches (drop us a note!). And as always, Justin and I are here if you need anything.
Image source: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/shutterstock_144042475.jpg
If it takes a village, where is that village? Reflections on the Dolphins’ bullying case
I’ve been studying the phenomenon of bullying for my entire professional life, and as much as I believe the best about others, I also have discovered that boys, girls, men, and women do not always *naturally* know the right thing to do. To be sure, they eventually learn what is socially acceptable in many situations, but not in all. And as we get older, the situations become more complex, and are acted on by many outside forces such as peer expectations, conflicting worldviews, personal insecurities and dysfunctions, and the sometimes miserably difficult nature of life. And in this murkiness eventually surfaces major problems. I think of teens taking their lives in part because of bullying. I think of child abuse and domestic violence and sexual assault. And I think of many other wrong choices and behaviors where one person ends up really hurting someone else. Like in the Miami Dolphins’ maelstrom involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.
We’re familiar with what has occurred, and the story seems to be getting more complicated and implicating more individuals every day. But let’s take a moment to focus on Incognito and Martin to determine if this could have been prevented (at least in part) if we magically were able to go back in time and influence their lives while growing up. Of course, we can’t, but if something can be learned, it can be applied to the teens we do have in our lives right now. And maybe, just maybe, it will compel us to act in ways that reduce the likelihood of a similar outcome in the future. We must remember that this doesn’t just affect two people, but has reverberations throughout the NFL, sports (with the NBA recently acting to prevent hate and harassment), and adult workplaces in America and beyond, and therefore – by extension – touches every area of our society.
The general sense from media reports about Richie Incognito was that he probably overstepped a line when it came to the way he interacted with Jonathan Martin who – assumedly – was just different in personality and constitution from him (and perhaps other NFL football personnel who believe Martin is soft, weak, and emotional). Perhaps those differences elicited some sort of reaction in Incognito. Some might say that reaction was hateful, but since we still don’t know all the facts, let’s at least agree that it was disrespectful and mean.
Perhaps it’s easy to condone or justify his actions because of a shared group mentality about how an offensive lineman should be, or about how a football player should be, or about how a man should be. However, from our extensive work with teens of all ages who are continually fighting battles to be included in one group and while not excluded in another group, we have learned that discrimination and stereotypical worldviews about how others should or not be, act, speak, or look is one of the major roots of bullying. Somewhere along the way, there likely was a marked failure of social institutions in Incognito’s life (school, family, faith-based organization, sports teams along the way, etc.) to teach and (more importantly) regularly remind him about peer respect, tolerance, and acceptance of individual differences. Would Incognito (and perhaps others) have treated Martin with hate (at worst) or callousness (at best) if those lessons has been deeply branded upon his mind and heart? Maybe, but I doubt it.
On the other side of the issue we have Jonathan Martin, who by media accounts is perhaps more sensitive than many of his peers in football – or, perhaps, is at least more open in vulnerably demonstrating that sensitivity. He may be struggling with some deep-seated issues, or he may simply have been subjected to repeated bullying to the point of breaking him. Here again, I believe that social institutions have likely failed him. Let’s say that he wears his heart on his sleeve. I can relate to that – I’m the same way (for better or for worse). I don’t imagine this is a recent development in his life, and so I will speculate that Martin has been this way and if so, has likely dealt with mistreatment from others before. To me, that means that there were likely opportunities from parents, from coaches, from teachers, and other adults to provide counsel, wisdom, encouragement, and specific techniques and strategies to deal not only with bullies but also with heavy emotions when life gets really hard. The fallout from this case has happened quite suddenly, but I imagine there were requests and cries for help all along the way that were dismissed or ignored. Perhaps this has been the story of Martin’s life. I am not sure; all I know is that this happens. People try to get help, and/or never receive the guidance and support they need, and then a major awful event happens.
For adults like Incognito and Martin (and perhaps for many others in sports and other spheres of life), there has probably been a massive failure somewhere along the line. For Incognito, perhaps no one really taught him how far is too far (and no one seemed to care enough to stop him, either). For Martin, perhaps no one was able to fully be there for him, to counter feelings of exclusion and rejection with feelings of inclusion, respect, and esprit de corps. Both of these failures could happen to anyone, and are happening to so many around us. And all of this begs the question: what are you doing about it?
Photo credit: Lynne Sladky/AP
Questions Parents Should Ask Their Children About Technology
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
Provides parents with some sample questions that they should ask their children about how they are interacting online.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2013). Cyberbullying Scripts for Parents to Promote Dialog and Discussion. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/Questions_Parents_Should_Ask.pdf.
Cyberbullying Word Find: Talking to Youth about Internet Harassment
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
A word search to be distributed to youth to promote discussion about cyberbullying and Internet safety.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2013). Cyberbullying word find:
Talking to youth about Internet harassment. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/cyberbullying_word_find.pdf