Bullying vs. Drama — Does the Name Matter?

What academics and policymakers call “bullying” is what kids call “drama” — and the distinction has implications for school and student safety.

Under pressure to maintain control over the bullying problem in schools, some adults are overlooking their greatest resource: the kids themselves. The New York Times reports that one of the biggest hurdles faced by anti-bullying campaigns is that the people in charge fail to understand or take into account the points of view of the very people these campaigns are trying to help.

Even the words employed by these programs can do more harm than good. While labels such as “bully” or “victim” seem commonsense, children, especially preteens and teenagers, might be loath to think of themselves as such.

For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.

Failing to account for such attitudes creates a disconnect between people to aim to fix the problems and those they want to help. In their Times Op-Ed, Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick explain how their initial research of student-on-student bullying did get anywhere until they took a close look at the vocabulary their research subjects were using. What Boyd and Marwick thought of as “bullying,” students, instead, called “Drama.” Kids used the term as a type of protective mechanism.

Teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something. Repeatedly, teenagers would refer to something as “just stupid drama,” “something girls do,” or “so high school.” We learned that drama can be fun and entertaining; it can be serious or totally ridiculous; it can be a way to get attention or feel validated. But mostly we learned that young people use the term “drama”because it is empowering.

Boyd and Marwick concluded that by forcing students to use the bully/victim nomenclature, the researchers were thrusting victimhood on the kids and making them feel weak, without offering them a path towards empowerment and agency.

But in The New Criterion, James Bowman wonders if it wouldn’t be better to take Boyd’s and Marwick’s research findings at face value. It is possible, he argues, that for kids “bullying” and “drama” are really two distinct things, and therefore, the problem of bullying is really not as widespread as it seems.

Teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something. Repeatedly, teenagers would refer to something as “just stupid drama,” “something girls do,” or “so high school.” We learned that drama can be fun and entertaining; it can be serious or totally ridiculous; it can be a way to get attention or feel validated. But mostly we learned that young people use the term drama because it is empowering.

If school is the best place for children to learn to cope with the conflict they’ll be dealing with throughout their life, over-zealous anti-bullying efforts might instead retard this adjustment process.

Tuesday

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