I should know, until I had a growth spurt around 14 I was often on the receiving end of the proverbial double-edged sword of the angsty, hormone-filled era known only as adolescence.
So last week when I happened upon a group of kids bad mouthing another person they (presumably) went to school with, I was torn.
On one hand, part of me wanted to say something to the group, to tell them bullying is decidedly wrong.
Conversely, I feared doing so as an “adult” would only reinforce their actions and beliefs (be honest, how many of you remember doing things as teenagers just because adults told you not to)?
In the end, I said nothing out of fear for making the situation worse (I wouldn’t want to tell these kids off and have them take anger towards me out on others).
It invites the question though: is gossiping bullying?
I think a lot of us have this idea of the quintessential bully: the taller-than-average kid, usually popular to some degree, hiding out in the bathroom stall giving kids swirlies and stealing lunch money.
The reality, however, is bullies come in tiers.
Yes, you have those stereotypical ones.
You also have ones who are more clandestine: spreading rumors, hacking into others’ social media pages or just going out of their way to gossip about others, either in person or digitally (Facebook has, undoubtedly, made this easier).
Lastly, there is one other tier that despite being, in my view, the least discussed is almost certainly the most influential of the three.
The kids who don’t initiate the bullying themselves but when the time comes to point fingers and laugh are right there.
Sure, they might not start the fights, but by remaining silent while another is bullied they enable the situation.
Likewise, sometimes all it takes to end the cycle is speaking up.
I still remember when, at the start of Grade 8, one of the kids who bullied me the most throughout middle school ended up sitting beside me in music class.
The first few months were business as usual, but then one day out of the blue he came up to me and apologized.
He said he knew teasing me was wrong, but because other people singled me out as an easy target (one of the drawbacks of changing middle schools in Grade 7), he was hesitant to befriend me.
I initially doubted his sincerity but it was genuine and the two of us became quite good friends over the rest of the year.
Sometimes I look back on that decision and how, while it wasn’t a huge deal for him, it was a turning point in my childhood, forging friendships I still have today.
Fast forward to those kids in the store and this was all I could think of.
Perhaps that’s why I was so disappointed in myself for not saying anything, because I know how a previously-complacent individual putting their foot down can be all it takes to end the cycle.
On the other hand, while adults can help fight bullying, it’s students themselves who have the most power to effect change.
As any teenager knows, asking an adult for help with bullies is a sure fire way to get a target on your back. In my experience, going to a teacher often has the unintended effect of teaching bullies how to be “stealthier” in their actions as opposed to feeling remorseful for them.
On the other hand, a fellow student doing the calling out can be much more effective. Kids don’t care about what teachers think about them, but if their popularity within the school’s hierarchy is at risk, you better believe they’ll know it.
I don’t say this to remove my (or other adults’) responsibility in addressing the issue, but rather to illustrate what my own experiences have taught me.
With that in mind I have a message, both as a reminder to myself but also as advice for anyone else who wants to fight back against bullying.
If you see a friend or acquaintance picking on someone, call them out — mob mentality is a real thing and chances are if you feel something is wrong, other bystanders do too.
One last thing: bullying is bad, but that doesn’t mean the people who choose to bully are inherently bad.
Often they can be the biggest catalysts of change — provided they acknowledge their wrongdoings.
Following the herd doesn’t take bravery; often the most courageous act is the one someone makes despite being terrified.