Stuff for the Teen Age, For Teachers and Students
Talking with Teens about Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Online Safety
Several weeks ago, I fully intended to have the topic of our Teen Advisory Group meeting be Banned Books Week. But our conversation took a detour, and soon we were talking about bullying and cyberbullying in fiction and in real life. It wasn’t the way I expected the conversation to go, but I’m glad it did.
One of the main topics of our conversation was this article from The Washington Post about a 7th-grade girl whose decision to send photos of herself to a boy who’d asked for them had a disastrous effect on her life and her reputation. As a young adult librarian—and someone who reads a lot of YA literature—I’m familiar with the dangers of sexting and how making the decision to send one picture to one person can have terrible consequences when that photo is shared. What I didn’t realize until I read that article is how common the practice is becoming for teens and even children.
Since the conversation was already going in this direction and since October is National Bullying Prevention Month, I opened up the conversation in broader terms. What should they do if someone asks them to send nude/topless/inappropriate pictures of themselves? How do they deal with cyberbullying? Is bullying something they experience or witness in their schools? I stressed the dangers of sharing photos or personal information with anyone, because you don’t know who’s going to end up seeing them and because photos last forever.
These are topics that come up again and again in YA literature, in conversations with our teens, and in conversations with each other. At the last meeting of my YA book club, I was with a group of librarians discussing the book Asking For It by Louise O’Neill. I said that reading this book was like getting repeatedly punched in the stomach. One reason was that it was the third YA novel about rape that I’d read in the last few months (they were all excellent reads, but they were so emotionally overwhelming that I felt like I needed a break from the topic). Another reason is that the main character makes a LOT of bad decisions, and I felt frustrated because I really wanted to reach into the book to try to shake some sense into her. And the final reason was that the boys who assaulted and degraded this girl filmed and photographed everything, and then those images spread like wildfire throughout the entire community. I commented that I had made bad decisions when I was young, although the only people who knew about it were the people who were with me at the time. But photos and videos can last forever, and that’s what teens today are facing, in fiction and in real life.
When I talked to my teens about how they would deal with the same kind of pressures as the girl in the article, they spoke definitively and firmly about avoiding people who harassed them and blocking people online if they asked for anything inappropriate. They also suggested that I read about Amanda Todd, a teenage girl whose life ended tragically after she was blackmailed and cyberbullied. The circumstances of her death are terrible and depressing, but I’m glad that my teens knew about her and remembered her name to share her story.
That is what is important here—to share information and share stories. Because even though bullying and cyberbullying can be painful and embarassing topics that we don’t always want to discuss, it’s better to have information out in the open. Young people can make better decisions about how to stay safe and the long-range consequences of their actions if they’re well-informed about the possible dangers of those actions. Basically, it’s better to have that conversation too early than too late.
To learn more about bullying, cyberbullying, and online safety, here are some resources to get you started:
Bully (a powerful documentary about the bullying crisis)
Positive : Surviving My Bullies, Finding Hope, and Living to Change the World : a Memoir by Paige Rawl with Ali Benjamin
Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral by Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja
Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories ed. By Megan Kelly Hall and Carrie Jones
There are lots of great YA fiction books about bullying on the shelves, with more coming out every year. Here’s a list I put together for an earlier blog post with ten titles to get you started: Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders in Teen Fiction
Finally, there are many articles on these topics, but here’s the one that started our whole conversation: