Jodee Blanco: Back to my own school years. No matter how desperately I tried to connect with my classmates, it was as if there was an invisible force field between us, one that I could never seem to penetrate. My classmates were ruthless—they bullied and humiliated me as if it was a sport, and I became the spectator in my own life. Day after day, I was spitballed on the bus, terrorized in the hallways, mocked and teased during gym, snickered at in class and the butt of every joke. And what hurt most wasn't the acceptance that my peers withheld from me, but all the love and friendship I had to give that no one wanted. After a while, it backed up into my system like a toxin and poisoned my spirit. It would take years before I would heal.
When I see stories in the headlines about the young people today who don't survive, like Phoebe Prince, it hurts my heart, especially when the primary bystanders in these situations aren't just students, but adults.
BL: What's the difference between bullying and kidding around?
JB: If it's hurting someone's feelings or damaging their self-esteem, it's bullying. That's why I encourage victims to speak up so there's absolutely no confusion.
BL: When I watched you captivate a room full of hundreds of middle school students in 2008 during your "It's Not Just Joking Around" seminar, I was struck by the pain the kids expressed and the willingness to talk turkey and find a solution. What are kids being bullied about today?
JB: Kids are being bullied today for the same reason they've always been, and that I was too—simply for being "different." What's important for people to understand, something I always emphasize in all my presentations, is that bullying just isn't the mean things you do, it's all the nice things you never do—letting someone eat alone at lunch or ignoring them as if they're invisible. It doesn't take an overt act of cruelty to diminish someone's spirit.
Simply never making the effort to include them in anything can be just as hurtful. I call it "aggressive exclusion," and it can be the worst type of bullying because it doesn't make the victim say to himself there must be something wrong with you, it makes him say to himself, there must be something wrong with me. He or she is likely to carry that self-doubt throughout life. This is what I mean when I tell kids that it's not just joking around???bullying damages you for life.
BL: Have the way one is bullied changed much from when we were kids?
JB: No, the only difference is that the tools to achieve it are far more sophisticated and cut a wider, much deeper swath. For example, 30 years ago, if someone wanted to spread a vicious rumor about somebody, they might write it on a piece of notebook paper and pass it around math class, where it would be read by the 30 students in that classroom and then discarded. Today, that same rumor could be tweeted, posted on a blog or social network like Facebook, be sent via an email blast to the entire school, transformed into a video message and then uploaded on YouTube, texted to dozens of cell phones simultaneously or relayed via instant messaging to countless friends online.
Another challenge is the anonymity afforded by the Internet. Students can hide behind usernames and aliases with little, and often, no repercussions.