Everyone Talks About Bullying But Sometimes It's Just Plain Old Drama

Bullying is a problem (related: today's story about 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, who killed herself after photos of her alleged rape were mocked on the internet for years), but the term is misused so often that it's become somewhat of a useless buzzword. Experts say we need to separate the behavior from what teenagers commonly call "drama." But can we talk about drama without thinking solely about catty, bitchy girls?

Emily Bazelon, reporter and author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that the word "bullying" is overused and well-meaning state laws confuse the issue even more:

The definition of bullying adopted by psychologists is physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance. In other words, it's about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable.

There's a time and place for the term — it appears that Rehtaeh Parsons was bullied, for example — but what do you call teenage conflict that doesn't fit that bill yet necessitates action? "Drama."

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One way to better identify real bullying is to listen to how teenagers themselves describe their interpersonal conflicts. Most teenagers can identify bullying, but they can also distinguish it from what they often call "drama," which, the researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick have shown, is an accurate and common name for the ordinary skirmishes that mark most children's lives. In fact, it's drama that's common, and bullying, properly defined, that's less so.

Bazelon expands on the difference between the two terms in her book; "To frame a conflict as drama was to withhold judgment, at least at the outset, about who was to blame," she explains. "...as the kids used it, the word described far more teenage conflict than the narrower definition of bullying, with its settled hierarchy of powerful and powerless."

But have you ever heard a conflict between heterosexual boys described as drama? It's unlikely, because boys get in trouble for physically aggressive behavior while girls use more indirect forms of combat like gossip and exclusion — gendered behavior that's typically attributed to girls.

Bazelon told Jezebel that she noticed there was always a boy or two in the mix when she observed "dramatic" incidents while tracking the lives of both male and female teenagers for her book; not just as objects girls were fighting over, but as active participants. "Yet usually the drama is still described as girl drama, and the boy's role gets minimized," she said. One of her subjects is Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old who committed suicide after being mercilessly bullied by her peers — or so certain media outlets and lawyers wanted everyone to believe. (Bazelon's investigation yielded a much different conclusion.) The Boston Globe column that launched Prince into the spotlight was called "The Untouchable Mean Girls" and was all about girls, even though in the end the boys were very much at the center of that story — as participants, not passive onlookers. Why don't we think boys get caught up in drama, too?

In a fascinating paper called "The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics," researchers danah boyd and Alice Marwick close-read Formspring accounts and Facebook comments and concluded that drama "serves to reinforce the very conventional gendered norms of high school, perpetrating the systemic undervaluing of feminine subjects and re-inscribing heteronormativity." They found that both boys and girls defined drama as "a girl thing," which is "another reason that drama is dismissed as unimportant: because it is about traditionally feminine subjects like dating, gossip, and friendships, which tend to be viewed publicly as frivolous or insignificant."

Nevertheless, boyd and Marwick believe that the use of the term "drama" can help understand how kids interact with one another in a positive way:

While teen conflict will never go away, networked publics have changed how it operates. "Drama" is a very messy process, full of contradictions and blurred boundaries. But it opens up spaces for teens. As a concept, drama lets teens conceptualize and understand how their social dynamics have changed with the emergence of social media. Technology allows teens to carve out agented identities for themselves even when embroiled in social conflict. And it lets them save face when confronted with adult-defined dynamics, which their peers see as childish and irrelevant.

Since most teens don't consider themselves bullies because they don't want to see themselves as aggressors — or bullied because they don't want to think of themselves as victims — they feel alienated by parents and mental health professionals and are unlikely to respond to anti-bullying efforts. That's why "understanding how 'drama' operates is necessary to recognize teens' own defenses against the realities of aggression, gossip, and bullying in networked publics," as boyd and Marwick explain.

We can't address real bullying unless we understand how it's different than drama. But we also need to reprogram ourselves to think beyond Real Housewives and Regina George when drama gets real.