Drama! Why adult concepts of cyberbullying don’t mesh with teens

It’s an unimaginable tragedy for any person to commit suicide. It’s a family’s worst nightmare and a problem that society must address. In recent months, more and more news stories are surfacing about very young people committing suicide and tying the cause to bullying, especially in online environments – cyberbullying.

Campaigns have started to find ways to reach youth with media and school anti-bullying programs. Of course people want to do the right thing. Of course adults want to help young people. But what really does help?

Alice Marwick and danah boyd, both highly respected social media and youth researchers wrote an op-ed for the New York Times today – Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark

It’s based on a new paper – The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics

You should read these, both of them. Why? Because the authors talked to teens, and listened. For six years. Across all kinds of kids, all kinds of socio-economic groups and geography. What they heard was that teens do not use the same language as adults. What an adult might label “bullying”, teens call “drama.” And in the paper, the authors distill what that means and how it plays out in real life (both online and off.)

It’s not just a different word for the same thing. The authors listened to youth about the motivation – why would teens engage in drama? What do they get out of it? It’s a fascinating read.

One of the big takeaways for me was the relationship of adult bullying solutions to the issues of youth agency. When we ask young people to accept adult definitions and solutions to the problems of their lives, adults often ignore the fact that this is asking them to put a label on themselves. If you are being bullied and adults tell you “tell an adult”, it’s meant as a friendly, supportive gesture. However, for a young person, that means first accepting that they are a victim. This is a big ask for a young person building their own identity.

I hope you take the time to read both the article and the full paper. They are worth it!

Sylvia

Paper Abstract: While teenage conflict is nothing new, today’s gossip, jokes, and arguments often play out through social media like Formspring, Twitter, and Facebook. Although adults often refer to these practices with the language of “bullying,” teens are more likely to refer to the resultant skirmishes and their digital traces as “drama.” Drama is a performative set of actions distinct from bullying, gossip, and relational aggression, incorporating elements of them but also operating quite distinctly. While drama is not particularly new, networked dynamics reconfigure how drama plays out and what it means to teens in new ways. In this paper, we examine how American teens conceptualize drama, its key components, participant motivations for engaging in it, and its relationship to networked technologies. Drawing on six years of ethnographic fieldwork, we examine what drama means to teenagers and its relationship to visibility and privacy. We argue that the emic use of “drama” allows teens to distance themselves from practices which adults may conceptualize as bullying. As such, they can retain agency – and save face – rather than positioning themselves in a victim narrative. Drama is a gendered process that perpetrates conventional gender norms. It also reflects discourses of celebrity, particularly the mundane interpersonal conflict found on soap operas and reality television. For teens, sites like Facebook allow for similar performances in front of engaged audiences. Understanding how “drama” operates is necessary to recognize teens’ own defenses against the realities of aggression, gossip, and bullying in networked publics.

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