Recently, I was talking with two middle school girls about some messages they had received from a girl in their class. The girls had been spotted hanging out with some guys at youth group (!) and were now accused of being sluts. Yes, that’s right. Just talking to a couple of guys at youth group of all places was enough ammunition for one girl to attack them.
They showed me the texts this girl had sent the both of them on their phones. The language was quite…graphic. Slut was actually one of the nicer words. So what do you do when teens share something like that?
We all talk about (cyber)bullying and we read the statistics, but how seriously do we take it when we’re actually confronted with it? You see, one of the girls had shown the texts to an adult. The reaction? Don’t take it so seriously, stuff like that happens. You just have to ignore it. Even worse: this adult didn’t even want to label it bullying. It was just ‘girls being girls’.
Really? Calling another girl a slut and sending her incredibly mean messages is not bullying? Then what is? And ignoring it, that’s the best advice?
To give you an idea of the type of messages teens can receive, watch this shocking video from the Canadian Safe Schhol Network. Taking a popular segment on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, they have kids read out mean tweets sent to them. Man, it breaks your heart. You can’t tell teens that that’s not bullying and you certainly can’t tell them to just ignore it. (warning: obviously, there’s some nice-so-nice language…)
First of all, you can’t ignore how messages like that affect the recipient. These two girls were understandably hurt and upset. Even when talking to me, the tears welled up. They had done nothing to deserve this and yet they were being called horrible names. Of course that hurts and no, ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.
But more importantly, ignoring it is exactly the wrong advice. And so is engaging in similar behavior by the way, also some advice they got. ‘Just show her you’re not scared of her’ was the line I believe – and so they exchanged some harsh words themselves.
So what is the right way to deal with this? I started out by listening, trying to get the whole story. Of course I only get their perspective – I’m very aware of that fact. But they were relieved someone was taking them seriously. I didn’t ask to see the messages, they showed them to me themselves, anxious to ‘prove’ what had happened.
My main goal was to make sure they were okay, so we spent some time talking about how it made them feel. I then stressed the importance of knowing the truth and not believing the lie. The reason is that the accusation of ‘slut’ for girls is a dangerous one, since it can also lead to showing exactly the type of behavior they’re accused of. The reasoning is that when your reputation is ruined anyways, you may as well act like it. (1)
Of course, I also wanted to help them in making it stop. Unfortunately, they had engaged in some verbal warfare themselves, so we talked about how effective they thought that was. Then we discussed possible strategies, like talking to a school counselor or teacher, talking to the girl directly, or getting help from friends or class mates. There’s no one way to handling this since it really depends on the situation and the context. As much as schools try to convince they’re anti-bullying, in practice they’re not always taking these situations seriously. Especially the first ‘steps’ in cyberbullying are often ignored or not taken seriously – which of course gives bullies the space to move on to more serious tactics.
We can’t just say we take bullying seriously and then tell kids to ignore it, or downplay it when it’s happening. For victims of bullying, the most important thing is to feel heard and seen. When they have the courage to come out and talk about it, being taken seriously is of crucial importance. But so is actually doing something.
Bullying, let’s take it seriously.
(1) For more about this, I recommend reading the book I am not a Slut. It opened my eyes to how girls treat each other and the deep psychology behind the slut-accusations.