Deterring Teen Bullying: Dos and Don’ts
There’s been a lot of interest lately in passing new bullying and cyberbullying laws. The pressure to pursue these provisions seems to come from the idea that the threat of harsher penalties will deter teens from bullying others. But will they? Deterrence theory is a very popular philosophy within the criminal justice system, and as such serves as the basis for many policies (e.g., mandatory sentences and “three strikes” laws). The basic premise is simple: humans are rational beings who weigh the costs and benefits of any behavior and will ultimately act in a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Rational people will therefore be more likely to refrain from deviance when the costs (severe punishment) are increased.
The problem with this perspective is that adolescent brains haven’t yet fully developed to the point where we can assume rationality in the face of unknown or unlikely consequences. Moreover, we often focus too much on formal punishment as a means to compel compliance instead of recognizing other powerful forces that may be even more effective. So what can be done to deter teens from bullying others? Below I offer some basic bullying deterrence dos and don’ts.
Increase formal sanctions. As noted above, a lot of people have been pushing for increased criminal penalties to be leveled against those who participate in bullying. Bills have been passed or proposed in most states (see our summary here) even while legislation has been languishing at the federal level for almost 5 years. New laws that clarify and support the roles of educators in responding to bullying are helpful, but those that seek to further criminalize are not likely to be effective at preventing the behaviors.
As I have stated before, it is unlikely that new criminal laws will result in more teens being deterred from engaging in bullying. Those who were dissuaded before will still be, but the added threat of increased legal punishment isn’t likely to prevent additional people from participating. The problem is that most teens (and many adults for that matter) simply don’t stop to consider the possible costs prior to participating in a behavior (especially possible criminal consequences). They are usually absorbed in the moment and aren’t thinking about what could happen if they are caught. Plus, the odds are that they won’t be caught (or significantly punished).
Enact zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies require school administrators to apply a specific, generally severe sanction (often suspension or even expulsion) to a student who is found to have participated in some proscribed behavior. These policies were most often originally focused on curbing weapon and drug possession at school, but in recent years they have been expanded to include other forms of violence and bullying. Don’t get me wrong, “zero tolerance” is a fine idea in theory. Educators do want to clearly communicate that they have zero tolerance for weapons or drugs or bullying in their schools and that those who violate this standard are certain to be punished. The problem is that these policies, by definition, do not allow educators to use their discretion to handle situations outside the letter of the policy. Bullying is largely a relationship problem, and educators, working with parents, need to use their knowledge of the situation to apply a reasonable sanction that is more uniquely designed to address the particular problem at hand. One-size-fits-all responses frequently fall short in issues involving teens.
Utilize public shaming. Shame is a powerful force that can be used to encourage conformity and compliance. But when misused, it can result in the exact opposite response. Historically, societies have used shame to induce guilt among those who behave in ways that are counter to societal norms. Shaming can also have the unintended side effect of severing the emotional bond between the person(s) doing the shaming and the one being shamed.
Australian criminologist John Braithwaite argues that there are two types of shaming: disintegrative (or stigmatizing) and reintegrative. Disintegrative shaming results when society identifies a person as deviant, and figuratively (or even literally) expels that person from the conforming group. Reintegrative shaming occurs when society condemns the behavior, but not the person. In this case we avoid labeling someone “a bully” but instead refer to the specific bullying behaviors that need to stop. It is not the child we are convicting, but their behavior. Even when done with the best intentions in mind, public shaming is too risky when applied to adolescents whose self-esteem is generally under-developed and fragile.
There have been quite a few recent examples of parents (or educators – see this) publicly shaming their kids to send them (and others) a message about the wrongfulness of their behavior. This approach is misplaced. In my view, parents who publicly shame their kids are doing so primarily because they themselves felt publicly humiliated by the actions of their children and so they feel the need to prove that they are “good” parents by punishing in a public way. While this might seem like a creative method to address the behavior, I believe it could do more harm than good. The importance of the parent-child emotional bond cannot be overstressed, and permanent damage could be done. Praise publicly, punish privately.
Give students a stake in conformity. The threat of punishment only works if someone has something of value in their life that they would put at risk of losing if punished. For example, earning a bad grade only hurts if a student cares about good grades or is aiming for college or a scholarship. After-school detention is most powerful when a student has something else they really like to do after school that they would miss out on (such as an extra-curricular activity). Taking this a step further, if a man is unemployed, homeless, and broke, the threat of brief incarceration isn’t really enough to stop him from misbehaving. At least in jail he will be given a bed to sleep on and a meal to eat. As Bob Dylan famously sang, “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The best thing we can do for students to deter them from mistreating others is to get them involved in prosocial activities that they really enjoy so that the threat of school sanction or parental punishment holds weight.
Moreover, the punishment doesn’t necessarily have to be serious to have an effect. For instance, at least as of right now, I have a perfectly clean driving record. I have never been pulled over for any moving violation in over 20 years of driving [knocks on wood]. As much as the threat of receiving a modest monetary fine deters me from speeding, my desire to keep my record unblemished is an even stronger incentive, at least for me.
Connect and interact. Another reason many people refrain from misbehavior is because they don’t want to disappoint the people in their lives that they care about. Prevention is all about relationships. Inasmuch as many teens are not deterred by the threat of formal punishment, they are dissuaded from participation in behaviors that they know their friends, parents, or other valued adults would frown upon. When teens are emotionally attached or socially bonded to others, they internalize their norms and values and do not want to disappoint them by behaving in a way that is contradictory to those principles.
The concept of virtual supervision demonstrates that kids will behave in ways that are consistent with adults they value and respect, even when those valued others are not directly supervising them. For example, if I really value my relationship with my mom, and I know that she would be disappointed in me if she knew that I bullied someone, then I am less likely to bully others, even in situations where she is not present because I am considering how mom might feel if she found out about my behavior. Of course this only works if I have a really great relationship with mom and don’t want to damage that relationship by disappointing her. So the key is developing strong relationships with kids.
And this powerful effect can also work with others who work with young people (educators, church leaders, and law enforcement officers, to name a few). As an example, one time when I was in high school, I drove my ATV across town to some community event. Several minutes after I got there, one of the local police officers arrived and immediately started chewing me out for driving too fast on the city streets. He was yelling at me, saying that after he saw me he had gone to my house and was waiting for me and was going to give me a speeding ticket! For the record, I really didn’t think I was going that fast. But nonetheless, I was devastated. I was embarrassed and upset that I had disappointed him – not just because he was a police officer, or that he was threatening to give me a ticket, but because he had been my hockey coach the year prior and I had a great relationship with him. I felt terrible. In the end, he didn’t give me a ticket, but from then on I drove very slowly when navigating the city streets on my ATV.
It was a very powerful experience that others can learn from. Take the time to develop a positive relationship with your kids and students. For decades we have known the power of spending just a bit of regular time with students (e.g., 2 minutes a day for 10 days in a row). Learn their names. Give them high-fives as they come off the bus. Show them that you care – because we know you do. It can make all the difference.
Develop a positive school climate. A positive school climate is one that stimulates and encourages respect, cooperation, trust, and a shared responsibility for the educational goals that exist there. Educators, students, and everyone connected to the school take ownership of the mission of the school and work together toward a shared vision. If a climate like this is established, everything else seems to fall into place. Research consistently demonstrates that the more positive the climate of the school is, the fewer problems there are with bullying (and cyberbullying). A sense of collective concern is cultivated where students just seem to look out for each other more and believe that the adults in the school are genuinely there to help.
Since schools with better climates overall have fewer bullying incidents, a self-fulfilling prophecy emerges where bullying is something that just doesn’t happen here. If it does, it is addressed and stopped immediately. Students see that and are less inclined to resort to bullying in cases of conflict.
Deterring detrimental behaviors in a society requires more than just passing a new law or cranking up the consequences in existing laws. Considerate understanding of the needs and desires of teens will help us to design an incentive structure that is more likely to be effective. The simple fact is that some teens will not be deterred in their behaviors by the threat of any formal, criminal punishment, no matter how severe it may be. But these same youth could be prevented from bullying others if they have caring relationships with others or are involved in activities that they value.
Video Evidence of Bullying: Implications for Effective Response
A new video has surfaced showing a bullying incident in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The video shows 14-year-old high school freshman Kobe Nelson being pushed around by a classmate while a throng of onlookers heckle and encourage the two to fight. Several of the students can be seen recording the situation on their cell phones. It appears from the video that Kobe is simply trying to walk away, but the aggressor keeps pulling him back into the fray. Eventually Kobe is able to escape, but is later contacted by a police officer assigned to the school who inquires about the fight. He was taken to the office where he was informed that he was being suspended for two days for fighting. Presumably the other student involved was also suspended, but his sanction has not been discussed publicly.
There is sadly nothing all that special or unique about this kind of incident – fights happen in schools every day, and near-misses like this are without a doubt even more frequent. According to the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 12% of high school students had been involved in a fight at school in 2011. Overall, these numbers have been dropping since the mid-1990s, but still remain at levels of concern. There are no data available that quantifies the number of times students walk away, as Kobe did on that day.
Kobe protested his suspension, arguing that he didn’t do anything wrong. When his father, Tommy Purvis, learned about the video and watched it, it was clear that Kobe’s description of the incident was accurate – he didn’t do anything wrong. Mr. Purvis approached school officials with the video but they reportedly refused to watch it, saying that they already knew what had happened. The police officer assigned to the high school also apparently mocked Kobe, telling him that he should “bulk up” so he wouldn’t make for such an easy target. Perhaps this was an ill-conceived attempt by the officer to lighten things up. But flippant responses like this help explain why less than 30% of the students in our most recent survey (October, 2013) told an adult about their experience with bullying. Being dissatisfied with the school and law enforcement response, Mr. Purvis and his son went public with the incident by posting the story, and video, online.
The Power of Video Evidence
Video has always served as valuable evidence to enable investigators to see exactly the extent of one’s involvement in a criminal incident. Remember back in 2008 when several girls lured 16-year-old Victoria Lindsay into one of their homes for the purpose of beating her up? The motive for the assault seemed to have been linked to some trash-talking Victoria was doing on MySpace. The assault was premeditated for the purpose of teaching her a lesson and was deliberately perpetrated in front of several cell phone cameras so that the incident could be posted on MySpace and YouTube. Several girls were charged criminally and the chief offender, 17-year-old Brittini Hardcastle, served 15 days in jail. The assault was immortalized online and in a 2011 Lifetime movie. There are no shortage of similar squabbles that went viral. Publicity abounds when cruelty is captured in its raw and unedited form. Indeed, one wonders if Rodney King would be a household name today if not for the video that emerged of his beating.
With this in mind, should we encourage bystanders to record incidents of bullying when they witness it so that adults charged with investigating can see exactly what happened? We already encourage students to keep all evidence of cyberbullying, and so reminding and allowing them to document face-to-face incidents like this can help adults sort through the details of what happened so that offending parties can be held accountable. Of course, this could be abused. There is a big difference between the teen who gleefully records an incident for the purpose of later public posting and ridicule, and the teen who quietly gathers evidence to take to the authorities. The latter might be appropriate while the former most certainly is not (and may warrant punishment in its own right).
It is important to remember, too, that video recordings often only capture a snippet of a larger incident. In Kobe’s video, we see less than 90 seconds of the interaction and have no idea what Kobe might have said or done to possibly instigate the altercation. There are always multiple sides to any story, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more details emerged in this case. That said, one can only examine the evidence that is available, and video should always be used in combination with eyewitness interviews to put the pieces of the puzzle together correctly.
I worry, however, that had it not been for the video evidence, Kobe would have had a harder time substantiating the facts of the incident. Sure, maybe a few of his friends would have stepped up and offered support for his version of the events, but no doubt other observers would have contradicted those and the school would have been forced to default to offsetting penalties (punishment for both). And what kind of message does that send?
With Cyberbullying, There Is Always Evidence
One of the defining characteristics of cyberbullying is that there is always evidence. Whether it is a text message, Facebook post, Instagram picture, tweet, or video, it is important to continually remind those who are being targeted to preserve that evidence. With face-to-face bullying it is often one person’s word against another. Digital evidence helps to clarify who said what and when.
I was talking with a school resource officer in Wisconsin last spring about an incident where a student came up to him after school and said she was receiving mean text messages. The officer asked the student to bring in a copy of the messages for him to review. The next day this student brought a printed-out copy of the messages, which included over two pages of content. The problem was that just about every other message had been blocked out with a black Sharpie. When the officer questioned the student about the redacted messages, the student responded “Well…those are my texts to her, and those aren’t important.” Of course they are important! Adults who investigate bullying incidents need to be able to see all of the information surrounding the incident, so they can respond appropriately given all of the available facts.
School and law enforcement officials need to thoroughly investigate all reports of bullying so that those responsible can be properly disciplined. This is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds. First of all, many law enforcement officers lack good training on how to handle bullying (especially cyberbullying). And even though school administrators are generally much better at handling these kinds of incidents, they are stretched so thin with declining budgets and increasing mandated responsibilities that they often do not have enough time to adequately investigate these reports. So they triage them as best they can, but sometimes mistakes are made. Ultimately, it is up to everyone who witnesses bullying incidents to step up and report what they saw so that the correct and appropriate action can be taken.
Teens: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral!
Next week, our newest book will be released. And we are seriously pumped! Like all of the others, this one is on the topic of cyberbullying. But this book is not like all of the others. Rather, it is the first book on cyberbullying that we know of that was specifically and intentionally written for teens. Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral represents our effort to give youth the tools and inspiration they need to effectively prevent and respond to cyberbullying. And more than that, it encourages them to utilize the power of technology to spread kindness throughout their schools and broader communities.
We’ve long advocated that tackling teen tech problems requires a comprehensive and coordinated effort that includes parents, educators, law enforcement officers, and other community leaders. But it should also involve those who are at the very center of these issues: teens! And we know from the many conversations we have had with teens over the last few years that they do want to be a part of the solution. Until now, however, not much was available to help them. This book changes all of that.
Written for Teens
Whether teens are being cyberbullied, or just tired of seeing it affect their friends and school, Words Wound offers real-world advice that they can put into practice today. The book includes dozens of stories from teens who have experienced cyberbullying or who have worked in their communities to fight it in creative and effective ways. Teens are able to learn directly from those who have been wounded by words, but also from many who refused to stand idly by as their classmates were being mistreated. Readers will come to deeply appreciate the serious harm that comes from cyberbullying, but even more importantly learn the strategies they need to do something about it. Specifically, it empowers teens to combat cruelty with kindness, and to harness the power of positive peer pressure to persuade all teens to act with respect toward others, whether online or off.
It was a blast writing this book because it allowed us to get out of our comfort zone and write much more informally than we usually do. It was as if we were sitting down and having a chat with a teen. We get to hang out with students all of the time in schools all across the U.S. (and beyond), so we feel like we have a solid handle on what they are dealing with and how they are confronting online challenges. And we have also heard from them about what works and what doesn’t.
I deliberately tried to get inside the head of teens as I was writing for this book over this past summer by, for example, listening to current pop music by Justin Timberlake, Macklemore, and Lady Gaga instead of my usual favorites from the early 1990s. In fact, Lady Gaga had a small part in inspiring us to write this book. We were invited to participate in the launch of her Born This Way Foundation in February of 2012. The Foundation is all about empowering youth and giving them “the skills and opportunities they need to build a kinder, braver world.” We love this mission! At the launch event, an audience member asked Lady Gaga what she thought was the best way to teach students how to intervene in bullying incidents. In reply, she explicitly called for more resources to be directed to teens to help them navigate these issues (see 1:02:20 in the video). Upon reflecting on her answer we realized that there really wasn’t much out there for teens on how to deal with cyberbullying. We knew they were thirsty for information, and so we wrote this book.
Also Helpful for Adults
Even though this book is for teens, we also see it as a great resource for parents, educators, or really anyone who works with youth to help them navigate the difficult intersection of adolescence and technology. Adults who read the book will learn from teens themselves as their experiences represent the bulk of the book. They will also be given teen-tested and approved strategies for dealing with cyberbullying, and come to appreciate the importance of their role (and responsibilities) as the “Trusted Adult.” We enlisted input from several teen editors to review the content in the book to make sure the suggestions were realistic, appropriate, and relevant to them (special shout out to Kylie and Kevin who went above and beyond in their efforts to help us!).
Moreover, to assist adults, we’ve created a companion Leader’s Guide which will be freely available and allow teachers, counselors, or youth group leaders to use Words Wound to teach teens about empathy, cyberbullying, and digital citizenship. It includes learning objectives, discussion questions, activities, and assessment questions for every chapter. We believe it is perfect for educators who are looking for a teen-oriented book to guide them through lessons on these difficult concepts. This is especially important given the federal mandate that schools teach about cyberbullying awareness and response.
More Than a Book
Ultimately, our hope for this project is to take it well beyond just the book. We really want to create a mindset among teens where care and compassion become contagious and where cruelty is viewed as simply not cool. We know there are pockets of youth out there in their schools actively promoting this perspective, and a few of their stories are highlighted in the book. We will continue to support their efforts by showcasing success stories on our new teen-oriented website www.wordswound.org and popular social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). Be sure to visit those sites, and continue to follow this blog as we roll out exciting new resources and activities to help teens delete cyberbullying and make kindness go viral!
To pre-order a copy of Words Wound, visit Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Indiebound.
Teacher shames student in classroom after student bullies teacher on Twitter
Recently, a female student in Northern Mexico posted very offensive comments about her teacher – Ms. Idalia Hernandez Ramos – on Twitter. These included referring to her as a “whore” and a “bitch,” and defaming her in other hurtful and insulting ways. At best, the behavior is a youthful indiscretion that unfortunately hurts the feelings of an innocent person. At worst, it was a very cruel and painful act of harassment which could leave serious emotional and psychological wounds, apart from severely damaging the teacher’s reputation now and in the future. According to how we define it, it would be considered “cyberbullying.”
Most of us likely wouldn’t have heard about this case if not for a video uploaded to YouTube documenting what seems to be a typical classroom scene. In this video, Ms. Hernandez Ramos is teaching her class and covering material that interestingly, (and not coincidentally, we find out) relates to social media etiquette and digital citizenship. At one point, she singles out a female student and engages her in healthy dialogue about how online hate and bullying is extremely harmful, and can destroy the image of the person being targeted – and how teens can suffer legal consequences for their postings. And then, suddenly, the dialogue turns into an inquisition of sorts, as the teacher confronts the student about what she posted, and asks her why she would do such a thing.
At this point, the student is emotional after being called out in front of her classmates. She admits her role as the author of the hateful tweet, saying she was upset when she wrote it. Ms. Hernandez Ramos then remarks how she too is upset, and that so many others have seen the tweet, and that damage has been done. She then demands an apology from the student (and another student who shared the tweet with others) and states she will not allow “young brats” to call her that.
The epilogue of this story is that the student was suspended for two weeks, and the teacher has been placed on classroom leave while authorities determine whether she should lose her job. Overall, the case can serve an instructional lesson as we continue to wrestle with novel problems that arise from the misuse of technology in our everyday lives.
Harm is Harm No Matter Who is Involved
I am glad we are sensitive to the student’s humiliation and shame. However, we need to be equally sensitive to the teacher’s humiliation and shame as well. She was victimized. The worth of one’s dignity should not be on a sliding scale depending on how old you are. Furthermore, it does warrant defending. I would speak up and defend myself if ever bullied, harassed, embarrassed, threatened, or otherwise mistreated. Doing so must always be encouraged among everyone – but it should be done through the proper channels and in the proper environment.
It is good that the teacher confronted the student about her poor judgment and harmful online speech. But it is not good that the teacher publicly shamed the student in front of her peers. To be sure, the teacher herself was publicly shamed. However, we must hold adults in supervisory positions over youth to a higher standard of integrity and character. Whether they like it or not, they serve as a behavioral model to teens. They should take the “narrow road” and emulate wisdom and maturity every chance they get.
In this case, if I were the teacher, I would have been very upset and emotional about the situation. I believe such feelings are justifiable and natural. However, I would have spoken to the student in private, one-on-one, when I was calm and level-headed. In this case, the teacher “set up” the student. She asked other students to record the confrontation and apology. When I speak with teens, I remind them that retaliating is never the answer. It never defuses the situation or resolves the conflict. In fact, it usually makes things worse. Here, the teacher is clearly avenging the wrong she experienced.
We do need to remain gracious and understanding towards teens when they demonstrate immaturity. I wouldn’t want the student expelled, and I believe that two weeks of suspension is a just penalty. However, I wouldn’t want the teacher fired. Given what I’ve said above, can’t we extend some grace towards Ms. Hernandez Ramos as well – especially considering the emotional turmoil, stress, and sadness she must have experienced? Yes, she could have responded in a better way, but her victimization is an extenuating circumstance that lowers the maliciousness of her intent.
Not the First Time We Have Seen This
This reminds me of the situations involving parents who publicly shamed their daughters to teach them a lesson. Supporters of those parents’ actions termed it “creative parenting,” but it rightfully could be considered “cyberbullying.” If the dominant desire of any adult is to instill fear, guilt, and shame instead of conveying a life lesson about right and wrong in a healthy, encouraging, and loving manner, we’ve got a major problem. I’d consider such actions downright abusive. Caring adults should serve a protective function to buffer kids from the harsh realities of the world since they are at such a delicate point in their adolescent development.
Cyberbullied Adults Need Support, Assistance, and Guidance as Well
A number of adults contact our Center for assistance when being targeted. Their stories are as real, raw, and as devastating as the ones we hear from children and teens. Educators need to be trained and equipped to deal with online harassment and hate. This situation allows us to once again shine the spotlight on cyberbullying and ensure our prevention and response efforts are measured, informed, and best suited to truly make a meaningful difference.
Responding to Cyberbullying: Top Ten Tips for Adults Who Are Being Harassed Online
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This Top Ten List provides specific guidance for adults who are being cyberbullied.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2013). Responding to Cyberbullying: Top Ten Tips for Adults Who Are Being Harassed Online. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://cyberbullying.us/Responding_to_cyberbullying_top_ten_tips_for_adults.pdf