The 21st Century Bully

How to address bullies, prejudice, and assumptions through the understanding of perception.

By Matthew Spinogatti

Teenager being bullied

While many of us may wish to forget our first year as educators, there are many lessons that stick out to me from that difficult time in my career. I carry these experiences with me, like battle scars or badges of honor. One of the most deeply imprinted memories from this first year was coming face to face with the school bully.

In a short period of time, both students and parents were showing up in the front office complaining of cyberbullying. There were teenagers in tears complaining of being harassed and insulted through social media by an unknown perpetrator. These aggravating reports made me reminisce about the bullies of my own youth—large, pimple-faced males who threatened to punch you, but clearly needed a big hug. Nowadays, the principal makes announcements encouraging the use of privacy settings for Facebook or Instagram, and as teachers, we are encouraged to find videos and lessons to help discuss the issue of bullying in class. As I navigated these waters that first year, some students would laugh about it all, pointing out the ridiculousness of bullying, while others would appear deeply affected by such cruel actions.

The Startling Reveal

One day, while walking through the front office to grab my mail, I heard whispering that the bully had been identified and was currently sitting in the assistant principal's office waiting for her parents to arrive. I peeked in and saw one of my students, a small, extremely quiet girl, sitting in a chair that looked way too big for her. Her head was down but the look on her face was still visible. Not embarrassed, not sad, just frustrated that she got caught. She was an honors student, and she and I had probably exchanged a total of six words.

As it turns out, she got her kicks by creating fake social media accounts and finding ways to harass or torment her peers, whom she felt ignored her. In the technology age, where social media can give everyone a voice, some will use that voice to try to hurt others.

The Fault in Our Stereotypes

I was mad at myself for assuming that the aggressor behind the screen must resemble the typical bully. I was stereotyping. I made assumptions, and the modern digital era delivered a dose of reality. I carry this lesson with me when dealing with today's youth.

An important step to decreasing the amount of bullying is to help the students understand the idea of stereotypes, and how they participate in their continued existence. Now, this is not something that can be addressed with a brief set of lessons. However, here is an activity that will work as a great introduction to the topic.

Perception Assignment

Provide students with the definition of perception and lead a class discussion on the topic. Next, have the students find images for the following six categories. They should all be put on one piece of paper and labeled. They can use Google images or cut images out of a magazine.

  1. How society sees me
  2. How my parents see me
  3. How my friends see me
  4. How my teachers see me
  5. How I see myself
  6. How I really am (this is an actual photo of them)

Once this is complete, have them write a paragraph for each of the six images, explaining why they chose them. Many of these images will be very stereotypical. This makes for a very interesting conversation, but more than that, it allows them to see many similarities amongst themselves. Many of them feel insecure, misunderstood, or misrepresented.

This activity is a great platform for future activities or conversations. What do you do in your classroom to help address the issue of bullying or stereotypes?

Additional Resources:

Positive Learning EnvironmentBeyond the Role of BystanderAnti-Bullying Exercises