If we want to take bullying seriously, we need to start by being able to recognize it when we see it. When does teasing or calling names become bullying? And according to teens, there’s also a thing called ‘drama’. What is drama exactly and how soes it help us distinguish better between drama and bullying?There’s a definition for bulling that’s very helpful. Bullying has to satisfy three criteria:
- It has to be verbal of physical aggression
- It has to be repeated over time
- There has to be a power differential
Let’s unpack this a bit further.
Verbal or Physical Aggression
Aggression is a term that in itself may need some clarifying. Aggressive means being hostile without provocation, attacking someone without a clear reason to. So verbal or physical aggression means one kid being hostile towards another kid, attacking the other with words or physically without a provocation.
Repeated over Time
This is a factor people tend to forget. A one-time nasty remark may not be nice, but it’s not bullying. With bullying, there’s a pattern of verbal or physical aggression. It’s not an incident that happens once; it’s a repeated series of similar incidents that keep occurring.
The last factor is one that’s hardest to grasp for adults. We don’t always recognize or appreciate the differences in status amongst teens. We know rationally that some kids are more popular and that others seem to be at the fringes, but we don’t always realize what that means. Bullying involves a power differential: a kid with more power and status (the bully) degrading a kid with less status and power (the victim).
What’s interesting, is that kids themselves don’t always recognize the power difference either. In her book Sticks and Stones, journalist Emily Bazelon shares the stories of multiple bully victims. In one case, a girl called Monique, some of the girls bullying her didn’t recognize Monique’s change in status. She used to be one step below the popular girls on the social ladder, but she’d dropped in social standing for various reasons. The girls bullying her didn’t see her as ‘weaker’ and kept coming.
An eye opener from reading Sticks and Stones for me was the deeper meaning of the word ‘drama’. Kids tend to see bullying as personal and one-way, whereas they labeled bigger conflict where multiple people were involved as drama. Bullying, then, they see between powerful and powerless, whereas drama is about power dynamics and competition over social status. Researchers discovered that teens were far more likely to open up about drama then about bullying.
Is there a difference, then, between bullying and drama? Yes and no.
In some cases, teens may interpret bullying as drama. This happens especially when they fail to recognize the difference in social status or in power. The problem is that teens aren’t likely to intervene in drama—on the contrary. Bazelon describes a certain school where drama was deeply rooted in the school’s culture and where teens cheered on drama—sometimes literally.
On the other hand it’s also possible that adults frame drama as bullying, thereby blowing it out of proportions. A single ‘episode’ of teen drama does not equal bullying, especially when it happens between teens of equal social status. That power differential, then, is an important factor in determining the difference between bullying and drama.
The crucial importance of the power differential in bullying and how to get kids to recognize this was the true eye opener for me in Sticks and Stones. While the book isn’t as practical and helpful as I’d hoped when I started to read it, it has definitely helped me to get a better and deeper understanding of bullying.
How do you see the power differential play out in teasing and drama in your youth ministry? Do you clearly see the difference between bullying and drama?