A Teen on What Adults Need to Know About Bullying

I do not say this lightly nor do I mean this in a patronizing way: the teens who have been part of our Ask-a-Teen column are so much more tuned in to the world around them and so much more eloquent about what that world looks like than I ever was at their age. Over Skype sessions and email chains, I’ve talked to them about pretty real things like the election, friendship and how to “be yourself” — and their answers have taught me more than I could have expected. When the topic of bullying was floated at a team pitch meeting, there wasn’t a second thought given about how we’d cover it: We decided to ask a teen. Brenna Haithcock, our January correspondent, to be specific.

How is bullying explained in school? Are you told to look out for certain things, or are you instructed how not to behave?

In my experience, bullying isn’t something that’s comprehensively covered in school. It’s narrowly covered in terms of physical intimidation or harm; the mental/emotional side is typically not as discussed. I remember in middle school, we had a school-wide presentation on bullying, which depicted big, buff kids slamming smaller, nerdy kids into lockers — very cliché. They tell you not to hurt other kids, but often don’t offer any sort of nuance.

Have you ever experienced bullying?

I wouldn’t really say that I’ve personally experienced bullying, but I also go to a very small school with really nice people. When I think of bullying, I imagine one of those typical ’90s sitcoms with dramatic music and sad faces where, at the end of the episode, everything is acknowledged and resolved. From what I see in the media, schools often repeat anti-bullying phrases yet perpetuate the means by which bullying exists. I definitely think that smaller occurrences of bullying, which are often not labelled as such, are common. Public humiliation, spreading rumors, leaving someone out and name-calling continue to be prevalent and less spoken about, but are often very damaging.

Is everyone at your school talking about that show 13 Reasons Why?

When 13 Reasons Why came out, everyone was talking about it. I heard that it was the most popular show on Netflix. I hadn’t read the book, but the premise sounded intriguing and I was excited to see a show that focused on mental illness and suicide. Discourses on mental health that are targeted to a teen audience are rarely explored sufficiently. I felt really disappointed after binging the first season. The show does raise awareness of the instigation of bullying on a personal level, but I’ve heard a lot of feedback about how it presents suicide and self-harm. When tackling important subjects, it’s tough to walk the line between depicting mental illness and romanticizing it, between making information accessible and normalizing harmful behaviors.

Are your peers mean to one another on social media, and does anyone do anything about it?

People that I know are generally really kind to each other online. But a lot of the time, making fun of someone happens in screenshots and text messages, so the person targeted doesn’t know. There is more wiggle room for cruelty when you don’t have to experience a face-to-face reaction. I see all kinds of hate on larger accounts that I follow, people hidden in a slew of hundreds or thousands of comments making pointed criticisms of others’ appearances. Bullying is a behavioral system based on power imbalances, so people can use their privilege to threaten others’ existence — via the color of their skin, the features on their face or the size of their body. People who target others aggressively use their words or physical strength to control, which often targets marginalized or oppressed people.

What are kids taught to do if they’re being bullied?

Kids are often taught to seek adult assistance, or to “log off.” But logging offline in a world so pervasively affected by technology shouldn’t be the work of the victim. We should address the problem at the source.

How would you explain bullying to the younger version of you?

The younger version of me was definitely naïve about the realities of bullying. I always thought of it as something distant, outside of myself and easily solvable. Talk to your parents and you’ll be cool, right? I would tell my younger self to always intervene. If you see a problem, acknowledge it. If you see injustice, don’t stand idly by.

What do you think adults need to know about bullying in high school? Or bullying in general?

To adults, I would say, your child’s problem is valid. The things that they are experiencing are legitimate and painful. Saying “suck it up” or “you’ll get through it” or generally dismissing the issue in any way discredits their experience and undermines the severity of bullying.

What do you think the hardest part is about being a teenager?

For me, balancing feelings of independence and dependence. The teenage years are this awkward purgatory of feeling somehow not like yourself and also the most yourself you’ll ever be. You’re discovering who you are, while also juggling concepts of acceptance and fitting in. Like, half of me wants to wear culottes and large earrings and funky shoes, and the other half looks around at other teenagers and wants to fit in. Harmonizing personal identity and growing into an adult, while still being subject to a lot of adult input, is definitely weird.

What’s the hardest part about being in high school?

THE PRESSURE. This might just be a “me” thing, but there’s a lot of demand to succeed — to be in the best classes, get the best grades, be universally liked and also go to the best college. The perfectionist in me wants everything to always be perfect, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that most things never are. Juggling extracurriculars, maintaining your GPA and applying to college while also keeping up a social life and being active on social media (something I often neglect) is totally challenging. Maybe impossible. It creates a lot of stress, from which I get stress acne, which is another super-fun, not-annoying-at-all part of being a teen.

What happens when your bully is your own friend? Have you ever experienced anything like this? What did you do?

Friendships can turn toxic for sure. If you leave a social environment feeling worse than when you entered, then the relationship isn’t boosting you up to be a better person. There’s a line between playful teasing and verbal bullying. I have experienced moments when friendships broke due to toxicity. Being honest with yourself is key. While it can be super dang hard to leave a friendship, you’ll probably thank yourself later.

What do you and your friends care about most right now?

The future. Everything feels so temporary in the space between high school and college, so finding comfort in moments, however fleeting, distracts my mind and readjusts my attention to the current world around me. There’s a lot happening in the world right now to stay engaged in.

If you had one piece of advice for yourself two years ago, what would it be?

I had to choose one thing, I would tell myself that everything matters a lot less than you think it does. Everything you experience is a piece of your journey, not the entire thing.

What do you think is the best way to stand up to someone?

It helps to be rational and to speak candidly. People generally respond to honesty and vulnerability, so communicating on a human level reaches a place that attacking back cannot.

llustration by Meghann Stephenson, follow her on Instagram @meghannfinley

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