Bullying sure isn't like it used to be. It's no wonder anti-bullying laws are popping up all over the place. In addition to bullying on playgrounds the way bullies always have, contemporary bullies are using technology. They're making nasty cell-phone calls, sending e-mails and text messages, and posting embarrassing things on the Internet.
The anonymous cowards.
When I was a kid in the '70s, at least bullies had to put some effort into their work. They were still cowards — they picked on kids who were small and defenseless — but they had to do most of their work face-to-face.
It's not possible to give a wedgie over the Internet.
That made the bullies vulnerable. There were lots of older kids in our neighborhood who protected us. A bully who roughed us up was likely to get roughed up himself. And bullies feared nobody as they did my sister Kris.
I'm certain Franky Leper still regrets the day he decided to bust up my go-cart. He was a big fat kid and he laughed and taunted me as he kicked my hand-crafted vehicle into pieces — until Kris appeared out of nowhere.
She tackled him from behind and down he went. As he lay on his belly, Kris clenched her fists and pounded with abandon. He blubbered like a baby, forever humiliated in front of the other neighborhood kids. Bullies are generally not as tough as they appear to be.
But now, thanks to technology, anybody can bully.
"Traditional bullying was about boys intimidating other boys by physical force," says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist and author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's. "But technology has enabled people to bully who otherwise might not have before. One of the biggest trends is a significant increase in bullying by girls."
At the same time the opportunities to bully has increased, the kids who are bullied are more isolated. Families are smaller, neighborhoods are emptier and latch-key kids often find themselves alone. A lot of kids aren't handling the trend well. "According to various studies, one in three kids is either bullied or a bully," says Kendrick. "And on any given day 160,000 kids are so traumatized by fear and intimidation, they're afraid to go to school."
Or worse. A common thread in school shootings during the past decade — both in high school and college — is that the shooter or shooters had been bullied.
So what to do? There are no easy answers.
When I was a kid, the prevailing wisdom was to teach kids to fight back. If a bigger kid bullied you, your dad showed you techniques on how to handle him. Even if you lost the fight, the bully generally would earn a respect for you and back down. But in these nutty times, that might not work. The bully could be packing heat. Or, if a bully is humiliated by the kid he was bullying, the bully's parent might have his lawyer sue.
It's no wonder numerous government and private organizations are promoting anti-bullying campaigns. It's no wonder 27 states have passed anti-bullying laws and nine more are considering them. Or that school districts across America are implementing anti-bullying measures to defuse situations before they get out of hand.
Nobody knows who or when the next teen powder keg will be set off, but we do know that bullying may be an ingredient that set the kid off. In our rapidly-changing culture, something that used to be dealt with by kids on playgrounds has blossomed into a problem with all kinds of disastrous consequences.
Though, even when I was a kid, the consequences were sometimes disastrous. In 1972, a great tragedy shocked our community. A kid who'd been bullied cracked. When the bully showed up at his house one afternoon, the kid opened his bedroom window and shot and killed him with a .22 rifle.
"That's the difference," says Kendrick. "The landscape has changed so radically that if such a thing happened today, nobody would be that surprised."