I was bullied as a teenager. Nothing serious of course, but when you are an undersized freshman getting his ass handed to him on the football field and then your immediate decision is to try your hand at musical theatre? That is just a goldmine of schoolyard insults and mild physical abuse waiting to be explored.
Hindsight is always 20/20 and the reality is it was never as bad as I thought it was at the time. Not by a long shot. I was just an adolescent cocktail of emotion living well in a predominantly middle class suburb north of New York City. If I got shoved around in the locker room at school, I got a reprieve when the school bell rang. I was not constantly connected.
Today? Kids can’t simply dodge Scut Farkus in the alley and run home. An estimated 17 million teens between ages 12-17 years old are using some form of social networking every day and 19% (4.5 million) claim to be victims of what is known as cyberbullying. Whether it is as simple as someone tweeting an embarrassing picture of you or someone setting up a video camera to watch you unknowingly expose your closeted sexuality and having the link messaged to others to watch, kids/teens/human beings can now pick their shots, for whatever reason they have to harass you, anytime and anywhere. What does it say about the times we live in when a suicide note is replaced with a quick comment online or a clearly troubled adolescent alludes to a horrific event on Facebook?
It is this hyper-connected, over saturated digital world that is a significant part of the problem. In The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell touches upon an epidemic in the 1970’s and 1980’s in Micronesia where kids were committing suicide, all in a similar fashion. This example is thirty to forty years old, but the fact that this stretch of suicides "tipped" shows the influence teens and young adults have on one another. Fast-forward to present day America, where face-to-face interactions compounded with social media point to a potentially bleak future.
Everyone wants to be liked and accepted to some degree, but teens struggle with the concept of peer acceptance perhaps more so than any other age group.
A recent study at Temple University showed that teenagers who were performing a high-risk driving task while hooked up to a brain-imaging machine tended to take more risks and showed greater activity in the reward system in their brains when they thought one of their peers was watching. These "social rewards’" are far more valuable to a teen than an adult since the latter tend to be more mature with stronger, more solidified social circles.
The long-held belief that ‘kids will be kids’ when it comes to bullying is not entirely inaccurate. By nature, teenagers tend to overestimate rewards and underestimate the risks taken by the choices they make. They’re emotional, hormone-charged creatures trying to survive the jungle of adolescence. If picking on the smart kid with glasses gets a chuckle from friends, then a potential bully makes an omelet by breaking some eggheads.
The difference from the "kids will be kids" way of parenting from my youth is in drastic content to what's going on today, and I’m only 27 years old. Now these same creatures have access to smart phones, computers, iPads and new sites, apps and tools to essentially voice whatever opinion they want to whomever they want about whatever they want. You can block and unfriend until the cows come home, but for every social media door you close, another opens in the form of a new Instant Messenger, Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. It’s bad enough that same smart kid with glasses doesn’t want to go to school to learn because he is being tormented, but now he is afraid to join friends online out of fear of being continuously dis-“Liked.”
Unfortunately, parents are more inclined nowadays to point fingers and blame others for the unfortunate results of their kid being bullied. In the most extreme cases, some are unjustly attributing it and only it to the more dramatic actions taken by their children as a result. The efforts should go towards taking a more active role and interest in their kids’ ever-increasing online activities, given how prevalent they’ve become. They can’t stop the growth of what websites and technologies kids are using, but they might be able to help their kids make it through to adulthood by knowing what a hashtag is.