Using Kid Lit To Read The Right Message About Bullying

April 18, 2010 Many of you know I clench when I hear the word ‘reporter’ (even though I’m one and the same, it’s different when you’re behind the keyboard) because media has powerful potential to ignite infernos and give too much heat to ill-placed words, creating drama instead of preventing same.

…So imagine my exhale when today’s edition of the Chicago Tribune rightfully quoted me about the need for media literacy and context when it comes to bullying or ANY digital hypefests.

Chicago Tribune reporter Heidi Stevens used a children’s literature corollary with one of my favorite book club picks, “The Hundred Dresses” that dates back to 1944 in a “that was then, this is now” flashback of monumental perspective. Turning a negative topic into a positive opportunity using storybooks for teaching moments? Kudos all around.

As we all mourn the loss of teen tragedies like 15-year old Phoebe Prince, splashed on the cover of People, and hear Oprah shows with devastated moms discussing kids “Bullied to Death” it’s imperative to apply critical thinking skills to media’s role in the conversation to enlighten and inform with prevention and education, rather than fan the flames in drama fests and social norming cues that are just not accurate of youth as a whole.

It’s SO refreshing to hear great material from colleagues and girls’ advocates like Rachel Simmons (interviewed extensively in the Trib article) that add solutions-based talking points, rather than hand-wringing stressors… And for reporters to look at all sides of the equation to temper the tenor being pumped into the media sphere.

As Larry Magid Co-founder of ConnectSafely wrote in this excellent CNET article titled “Let’s Not Create a Cyberbullying Panic,” when statistics are flipped, tonality changes, and the entire framing of a conversation gets knocked back into balance from being off kilter in a ratings war for eyeballs.

I was encouraged to see picked up on this as well…

Magid emphatically stated he was NOT minimizing or sugar-coating a very real problem, but instead was adding contextual relevance to the fact that 80% of teens say they have NOT been cyberbullied, while 90% say they haven’t wreaked havoc on other teens.

“Posing the issue in the positive is not just a silly math trick–it’s actually a strategy that can help reduce bullying or, at least marginalize those who engage in it.”

This, to me, is key. It goes to the ‘social norming’ issue that Anne Collier writes so eloquently about on NetFamilyNews, because to me, media is showcasing and ergo INFLATING claims and antics of teens which end up skewing reality into one massive lie…

Kids may think ‘everyone’s doing it’ (whether “it” means sex, mean girl taunting, etc.) when it’s not remotely the case.

My favorite example lately? Boys lying about sex. This USA Today article shows about 60% of boys lie about sex out of ‘media pressure.’ 

Toss in a couple of this week’s media articles in Australia about the “The Porn Identity” and this one, “Gen Y women facing pressure to have sex” and you’ve got a classic case of the tail wagging the dog when it comes to social norming…

Seems media’s pressuring BOTH genders with social norming distortions…Notably kids aren’t comfy and adults are squirming even more…so what gives?

To me, it’s absolutely absurd to see that as a global culture we’re:

a.) enabling profiteers to ignite drama, sell off childhood, and undermine societal values right under our noses by declaring this crud to be ‘normative’ when it’s not

b.) not lifting the veil on the motivations behind hyping insecurity for profit to cry foul at a high decibel level (‘we’ being teens, adults, kids, health advocates, etc.)

Larry Magid’s article cites strong evidence as to why I weigh every keystroke before I commit to covering certain touchy topics for fear it might ‘further fan the flames’ versus burying the negative in the hope the drek will sink to the bottom of the pond where it belongs. (case in point, the tweets about, ugh)

What is ‘social norming?’ This tag cloud below (by does a good job of visually defining the power of same…Applying this to the bullying media frenzy, Magid offers research that brings up some important points for solutions-seekers:

“In a paper (PDF) presented at the 2008 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach, H. Wesley Perkins and David Craig reported on a survey of more than 52,000 students from 78 secondary schools and concluded that “while bullying is substantial, it is not the norm.” They went on to say that “the most common (and erroneous) perception, however, is that the majority engage in and support such behavior.”

The reason that this is an important observation is because, as the researchers found, the “perceptions of bullying behaviors are highly predictive of personal bullying behavior.”

Even though the “norm is not to bully,” only a minority of young people realize that. If kids think that bullying is common or “normal,” they are more likely to be bullies.

Based on this research, the commonly held belief that we are going through an “epidemic” of bullying or cyberbullying is not only inaccurate, but it is likely contributing to the problem.

A BETTER strategy is to try to convince young people that bullying is not only wrong and and unacceptable but is abnormal behavior, practiced by a small group of outliers.

Taking it a step further, how can we marginalize bullies so that they–not their victims–are seen as losers and how can we enlist young people themselves to stand up against bullying when they see it or hear about it.”

Amen to that one. I’m actually working on a piece about this concept of ‘standing up against bullying’ peer to peer and doing some recon with teens engaged in some developmental risky business on the social media front. (not the least of which are two ‘cyberscourge’ sites as Rachel Simmons’ rightly called them, and ChatRoulette, ugh.)

No doubt both of these raw, sordid pseudo-reality shows (I say pseudo because anonymity tends to create surreal environs; not remotely common in day to day interaction) are indeed ripe for bullying and exploitation.

There’s not much ‘reality in reality shows’ either, n’est ce pas? It’s all about the drama and whatever can possibly be eked out as a ‘teaching moment’ (e.g. case in point–I’d argue that Teen Moms on MTV gives a much less idyllic snapshot of life with an infant than ABC Family’s Secret Life of an American Teenager who seems to have candy coated support out the wazoo)

And no I’m NOT remotely supporting this cyber slop, as I’m sure there’s potential for all kinds of nefarious nutcases and psychological terrorizing, (even teens seem to agree) but I also happen to be highly immersed in anecdotal behavioral evidence that a ‘ban’ on this kind of social media can backfire, (see Mashable article validation on same).

In the larger landscape of child-rearing, I’d like to invite people to think about the “new media monsters we’ve created for our kids” as Anne Collier writes, involving the playing with fire realm of social media risk-taking. (I have a whole treatise on this forthcoming)

This is where I think Larry Magid is spot on in saying we need to flip the focus away from proliferation toward a false norm to reveal the outliers instead…In the case of digital media dramas, as I quoted Anne Collier here, “tech and media are drama enhancers, extenders, and perpetuators” not creators.

So rather than creating a nation of sheeple being herded in the wrong direction by a backwards media culture defining bullying as ‘cool’…and culpability by sheer magnitude of the force showing every freakin’ media channel with some form of ‘mean girl’ stereotype (and kids fears of being victims of same, so arming themselves with false bravado/using digital transparency as a first strike defense mechanism) I vote instead for conversations about context, critical thinking skills, and getting ‘the good stuff’ to rise to the top where it should be.

So where do we start?

How about lobbing your toughest questions on parental pressures, teen friendships, bullying, self-esteem, he said/she said entanglements toward two power house specialists in this realm for a teleseminar Tuesday?

April 20, 2010 Simmons & Silverman Teleseminar:

For the first time ever, best-selling author of Odd Girl Out, and Curse of the Good Girl Rachel Simmons is teaming up with Shaping Youth’s child development/body image expert Dr. Robyn Silverman to tackle your most pressing parent conundrums…

Got girls? Get onboard this one…(frankly, I’d argue boys are equally prone to this dodgy drama from what I’ve seen in new roles and comments lately, creating unnecessary peer to peer angst for all) 

Here’s a quick video blurb of Simmons & Silverman (sounds like a law firm, eh?) to show you what’s in store for Tuesday night…If any of you readers would like to cover it for me in my absence, they’ll also be ‘tweeting’ some of the key questions using the hashtag #girlseminar on Twitter.

I wish I could be there too, but as I wrote before, I’m hosting the Consuming Kids screening the same night in Oakland. In absentia, here’s my question for this dynamic duo

What steps could you take if you were perceived as a mean girl/bully/provocative stereotype (e.g. wrongly accused) to ‘correct’ this judgment? (is there anything ‘victims’ can do to turn into heroes of their own story? How?)

Similarly: Adults often dismissively counsel ‘ignore it’ or ‘shut it down’ or ‘don’t respond’ when feelings have been wounded via technology…what are some productive solutions to owning up and/or smoothing over dramas that have veered friendships off course? (in lieu of avoiding the prior pals altogether) How can we all encourage peer to peer relationships that dial down the drama vs. getting sucked into the vortex of same? Moreover:

What incentives can we give media producers to focus on the positive stories of both male and female friendships (beyond just campy buddy films and ‘formula fairytales’ as this Salon article discusses about female friendships)

Let me know how it goes…Good luck all. Sounds like it has the makings of some good storytelling for a “living book” in Web2.0 style.

Readers: What are some of YOUR favorite positive teaching tools for media literacy about preventing drama/bullying, etc.?

I’m giving away a recycled copy of The Hundred Dresses to the person who comments below with the most ideas/resources…have at it! I’ll get you started…

KidLit: Resources Using Children’s Literature to Talk About Bullying

Great Kid Lit Reading Compilation:

Author Trudy Ludwig’s shortlist (by age) on Rachel Simmons’ blog

Books That Heal Kids blog/bullying

More Personal Picks

Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell (complete w/activities-lesson plan)

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Thank You Mr Falker by Patricia Polacco (dyslexia/special needs)

Arthur’s April Fool by Marc Brown

The Berenstain Bears and the Bully by Stan Berenstain

Classics like The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

Resource round-ups/parenting pragmatics

Building Moral Intelligence, by Michele Borba Ed.D and her amazing must-have The Big Book of Parenting Solutions(101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries)

Oprah’s dialog on bullying, including the Trevor Project,, and (Hardy Girls, Healthy Women)

True’s great research section on bullying/stereotypes & more

Character Education Read Alouds pre-K/K feelings charts/activities

Rosalind Creating Cultures of Dignity and her updated version of Queen Bees and Wannabes which Mean Girls was based upon)

Rachel Leadership for Life ( raising confident girls)

Jess Creating a Nation of Confident Women & Girls

Sue author of Google Bomb Book on Reputation Management

Dr. Robyn Silverman: Child Development Specialist (Powerful Words, body image expert for Shaping Youth, author ofGood Girls Don’t Get Fat coming in Fall 2010)

New Media Faves:

Adina’s Deck Episodes (using teen dramatizations on film, mysteries of cyberbullying; the online crush, etc.)

Smokescreen Game (U.K. online interactive using social networking as an education tool for media literacy/bullying issues)

Related Resources by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth:

Bullying and the Special Needs Child: You Must Be the New Kid

Harris Interactive: How Cyberbullying is Shaping Youth Savvy

Internet Safety: Media Literacy Tips from Industry Insiders Pt 1

Cybersafety Online, Tips from the Inside Out Pt2

Predators=Marketers + Frenemies: Keeping Kids Safe Online

Digital Doings & Teen Docu-Drama Genre/SXSW

Are Game Cheats a Misnomer? Pt 1, digital ethics

Kids, Gaming Ethics & Immersive Virtual Worlds Pt 2

Kids Online Community: Solidarity, Ethics, Getting Rid of Griefers Pt 3

Now…firsthand stories and input please? Any age and stage? (even adults…moms are well aware of the “odd girl out” schoolyard phenoms too)

Get them ready to send your questions to Simmons and Silverman for April 20, Tuesday, so we can do a follow-up with helpful hints gleaned on Shaping Youth.



  1. Hi Amy,

    I am a friend of Anne Collier at Net Family News.

    I am a Canadian parent with two teenagers, a middle school teacher, please see, and the founder of, an educational organization that strives to prevent bullying through education and awareness.

    I have created online courses for parents and educators at I would like to ask if I may have your permission to include your piece on “Using Kid Lit to Read the Right Message About Bullying,” as a resource in the courses. Of course I would include appropriate credits as you may wish them to be noted.

    If this sounds okay, could you please e-mail my the piece in plain text or Word.doc format?

    Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.

    Most sincerely,

    Bill Belsey


    159 Riverview Circle
    Cochrane, Alberta
    T4C 1K9

    Phone: 1 403 932 1748
    “Where you are NOT alone!”
    -The world’s most visited and referenced Website about bullying
    “Always on? Always Aware!”
    -The world’s first Website about cyberbullying
    “Learn to be the change!”
    -Offering online courses and Webinars about bullying and cyberbullying
    “Prevention through education and awareness”
    -The official Website of the annual Bullying Awareness Week”

    Bio: http://to./j74

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