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How teens view ‘the drama’

I’ve written a lot about “the drama” at school as a context for bullying and cyberbullying, suggesting that we can help our kids build resilience and avoid trouble by helping them get a little emotional distance from it. A commentary in the New York Times by social media researchers danah boyd and Alice Marwick clarifies what teenagers themselves think of drama.

First, it’s not all bad. It’s not just the social “primordial soup” that spawns bullying and cyberbullying incidents. “Drama can be fun and entertaining; it can be serious or totally ridiculous; it can be a way to get attention or feel validated,” boyd and Marwick write. [And guess what, parents. It's not just an adolescent thing. Adults generate it too, all the time (on and off reality TV), and we need to be aware that it's being modeled for children from an early age, often in their own families.] Everyday school drama can spike into bullying sometimes, so clarifying point No. 2 is that, when teens refer to “drama,” they are demonstrating (or at least trying to demonstrate) that emotional detachment I mentioned. “Young people use the term ‘drama’ because it is empowering,” write boyd and Marwick.

What does all this suggest to parents? That teens “get it” already – most of them fully understand, the commentators’ research shows, that they need to be above the drama – all that “juvenile stuff.” So we can be clearer on how to help. What I’m seeing is that it’s more middle schoolers who need help in seeing they don’t have to be drama-driven and seeing the drama for what it is. Our older teens just need our backup – we can make sure they know we have their backs when the drama gets overwhelming or cruel.

“Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish,” boyd and Marwick write. This is vitally important for us to understand. It’s why I wrote a few weeks ago that online safety needs to shift from a control model to an agency model – supporting young people’s own agency, resilience, and resourcefulness rather than keeping them stuck in a victimization narrative that they view as counter to their best interests. And when we really think about it, don’t we see efforts to represent youth as potential victims as counter their interests too – don’t parents want to empower their children to be strong, caring contributors to their communities online as well as offline? That’s what I want for my children!

But what about intervention when a young person’s really being tormented? “Interventions must focus on positive concepts like healthy relationships and digital citizenship rather than starting with the negative framing of bullying,” the boyd and Marwick write. “The key is to help young people feel independently strong, confident and capable without first requiring them to see themselves as either an oppressed person or an oppressor.”

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