When I was growing up, bullies tormented me occasionally, and writing this blog post evokes some painful memories. I’m sharing my story to raise awareness for Facebook’s announcement to combat bullying by making it possible for people to report harassment to others in their support network.
The announcement was made in conjunction with a White House summit on bullying, where President Obama said, “For a long time, bullying was treated as an unavoidable part of growing up. But more and more we’re seeing how harmful it can be for kids, especially when it follows them from their school to their phone to their computer screen.
He got that right. Bullying is wrong. And lives are at stake.
I endured bullying because my family moved around a bit. I was always the new kid in town, and neighborhood bullies then and now like to test new kids. It did not matter where we lived: a bully would corner me on a playground, in a school hallway, or maybe in the back of a school bus, and fists would fly.
Wheaton, Illinois, was the worst. Our family moved there in the 1970s. Although I would eventually form some valuable, life-long friendships in Wheaton, at first I encountered a town closed to outsiders. I could handle being ignored by other kids in junior high and high school, but being attacked by bullies was a different story.
I still have a slight scar from one such encounter, a vicious fight that ended with me receiving a black eye and the bully having his head smashed into a locker door.
The only way to cope was to learn how to fight harder and creatively. Bullies usually fought with their fists. I responded by punching, kicking, pulling hair, relying on the hammer lock, and turning ordinary objects (like locker doors) into weapons.
But my experience was nothing compared to what kids are enduring in the social media world. My encounters with bullies, however violent, ended quickly. Typically I dueled someone one-on-one, and when the skirmish ended, the bully found someone else to bother.
By contrast, bullying social-media style – say an attack on someone’s reputation through a nasty post on his or her Wall – can last for an extended period of time and often entails humiliating group harassment (and the group harassment is what makes cyber bulling especially lethal). It’s far too easy for bullies to rally large groups of impressionable peers on Facebook to menace and humiliate others, with tragic results.
And it’s more difficult for a parent to detect verbal bullying (on cyber space or offline). If your child comes home with a black eye, you obviously know his or her life has been disrupted; if your child seems moody, you might miss the root cause.
I don’t think the solution to ask the victim to simply get off Facebook – that’s like asking, “Why don’t you just move to another town?” The answer is to recognize bullying for what it is: unacceptable. As Obama said, being bullied is not a right of passage. What I endured was wrong. What kids go through today is horribly wrong.
Facebook’s effort is imperfect, but it’s a start. I hope you will take a moment to reach out to Facebook and voice your support. And just as importantly, become more aware of the problem. Even if you do not have children, kids live all around you — so why not spend a few minutes out of your day at least becoming more sensitive to the problem? (This website will get you up to speed quickly and so will this one.)
More importantly, if you see harassing behavior — online or offline –step in. Report cyber bulling to Facebook (and if you don’t know how, read these guidelines Facebook provides). Confront the bully yourself — you’ll probably have to sooner or later, so act. Pressure your school — loudly — to help. Discuss the bullying with your child’s teachers personally, and follow up frequently. Pressure the bully’s parents (but don’t expect results — the bully might come from a family of bullies).
Those of us who have dealt with grown-up Internet trolls have experience doing this. Well, the more vulnerable among us need our help. Stand up to bullies wherever you find them.