“Lots of good kids bully”

Neither bullied nor bullier be.

It’s a good philosophy, but incomplete. So I learned from talking to Faye Mishna about Karen Klein. Mishna researches bullying – cyber bullying in particular – at the  University of Toronto. Klein is a 68-year-old bus monitor from Rochester, NY, made famous in a stomach-turning, 10-minute YouTube video of teenage boys intimidating and taunting her crassly, cruelly and mercilessly. They taunt her about her weight, her hearing aid, and most devastatingly, her son’s suicide.

However tempting it might be to write these boys off as monsters or budding psychopaths, Mishna doesn’t believe they can be written off so simply.

“The things they were doing were awful, but we can’t know what these kids are like just based on this video,” she said. In fact, as discomforting as it might be, their behaviour isn’t even that extreme or unusual for a schoolyard or workplace.

“The numbers are too high, the prevalence is too high,” she says. “So many kids bully – lots of good kids bully. Most people agree there should be consequences for those kids, but those consequences should be learning experiences.”

She resists getting too bogged down, though, pondering the mind of someone who bullies. A conversation that only focuses on consequences for the students and charity for Klein misses the bigger picture.

Bullying is not just a binary relationship between perpetrator and victim. Mishna is interested in how other people fit into the puzzle:

“Most bullying happens in front of bystanders. As a bystander, you can either do nothing, which means letting it happen, you can jump in and help the kid who is bullying, or you can protect the kid who is victimized. That’s a huge piece,” she says.

Klein has said in interviews that this was not the first time these kids had bullied her. That makes Mishna wonder whether Klein lacked access to the tools and support she needed to respond.

“If it had happened before, why didn’t she say anything? Maybe she didn’t feel she could say something to anybody,” says Mishna. “If you’re going to have a monitor on the bus, you need the whole system in place.”

What were the other students on the bus doing? What about the bus driver? Did Klein’s employer prepare her for such a situation, and provide avenues for her to seek guidance and support? Peers, authority figures, and support networks all play roles in bullying dynamics.

That’s why merely striving to avoid becoming either the bully or the victim doesn’t necessarily remove you from the equation. And even as Klein’s video became an Internet sensation, bullying itself is also expanding online.

“In cyber bullying, we’re all starting to find that the group of bullies and victims seems to be larger,” she says. “We need to understand that, and what that means.”

One of the things it means is that more people’s lives than ever are touched by bullying in one way or another. For researchers like Mishna, it also means maintaining a focus on the core issues of bullying and anti-bullying – power, humiliation, empathy, social support, education, and public awareness. There’s little point in simply understanding bullying in the context of a single medium – the technology changes too quickly.

“Even three years ago, tips would be ‘put your computer in a public place.’ Well now that’s irrelevant,” she said. “Now kids in grade two have a cell phone and are online.”

She believes that anti-bullying efforts must transcend technology – viral videos and all.

“Research has shown that if a bullied child stands up and says, ‘Don’t do it,’ the bullying stops more quickly. But a kid can’t do that unless they’re supported by a larger system. The child on their own has to be pretty unique to do that without extra support, so all that stuff has to be put in place both in the cyber world and the traditional world.”

As Klein’s story demonstrates, adults without such support also have trouble asserting themselves. The complexity and difficulty of addressing bullying issues can be dispiriting, but Mishna believes change is happening.

“At least we’re addressing these issues now,” she says. “Years ago, people would have said it was just part of life. I don’t’ think it will disappear, but as with child abuse or spousal abuse, I think one of the reasons it seems more prevalent now is because we’re more aware of it. And if it’s in the public consciousness, at least people know they have the right not to be treated that way. That’s a beginning.”

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