Netflix dropped its adaptation of the bestselling young adult novel 13 Reasons Why recently and the internet swooned. Given Selena Gomez’s involvement on the show — with her first set to star in the planned movie as Hannah Baker, and then once it evolved into a TV adaptation, taking on an executive producer role — as well as its bestselling source material, it’s no wonder teen bullying suddenly seems to be everywhere in the press.
Sadly, this isn’t just because of the show, but real life incidents, no matter where you’re based.
This month in Berlin, a British teenager of Jewish descent quit Friedenauer Gemeinschaftsschule high school after he was allegedly attacked, almost strangled and had a toy gun pulled on him that resembled a real gun. Meanwhile, a dad whose teen daughter killed herself after years of homophobic bullying has recently released photos of her on a ventilator in hospital to raise awareness.
So how widespread is teenage bullying? According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2016 more than one out of every five students reported being bullied, while according to a separate study, only 36% of the kids being bullied reported it, suggesting the obvious: that students don’t find it easy to talk about.
This is especially discomforting because more than half of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied. Students who experience bullying are twice as likely as non-bullied peers to experience health side effects like headaches and stomach aches and are at increased risk for sleep difficulties, anxiety and depression.
Besides which, online bullying is growing more prevalent. In 2016, an NSPCC study reported the number of children and young people tormented by online trolls in the UK had increased by 88% over the past five years. Online trolls might not sound like a big deal in theory, but in practice, they can exert unbearable amounts of emotional trauma.
In 2017, Brandy Vela, an 18 year old Texas woman killed herself in front of her family following months of social media bullying when Vela’s ex-boyfriend Andres Arturo Villagomez, and Villagomez’s girlfriend used her photos to create fake profiles offering sex and photoshopped Vela’s image to show the teen, who was bullied about her weight, as a pig.
There’s obvious advice to give if there’s a teen in your life undergoing similar issues — encourage them to screenshot the evidence, to talk to someone they trust about it, to block the bully. But it can be just as important to call out teens who troll you to an adult, in a respectful way, to show that they can and will be held accountable.
A heartening development has been the increasing number of celebrities with a strong teen following speaking up about online bullying. For a start, if a celebrity with talent and a whole host of fans can be bullied, it dispels the myth that victims of bullying have been singled out because there’s something wrong with them. It suggests that bullying can and does happen to just about anyone. It also signals the right way to handle such behavior: to publicly speak up about it.
In 2014, one of Selena Gomez’s Instagram followers reportedly told her, in a comment that has since been deleted, to “burn in hell with cancer.” Gomez’s response was measured but still public. “The comment you left about cancer was absurd. How distasteful of a young woman,” Gomez commented on a post of the Instagram user who had made the remark (the account has since been deleted).
“I have gone through that battle with fans and family members. You can dislike someone but to wish something that could happen to you or your family is uncalled for sweetheart. You won’t be winning ‘anyone’s’ heart that way,” she continued. “Trust me. Educate yourself a tad more. God bless love. Be an amazing woman. You’re beautiful.”
In 2015, when Gigi Hadid was criticized for gaining weight while appearing at Paris Fashion Week, she hit back on Instagram. She began “So many people are so quick to comment negative opinions this month. Yes, judgment on social media comes from people who, 99 percent of the time, have no idea what they’re talking about, but I’m human, and I’m not going to lie, I did let the negativity get to me a little.”
But after highlighting the problem, she’s learnt to brush off criticism, concluding “If you don’t like it, don’t follow me, don’t watch me, ’cause I’m not going anywhere. If I didn’t have the body I do, I wouldn’t have the career I do. I love that I can be sexy. I’m proud of it.”
Still, to argue that celebrities are doing such a great job in speaking up against trolls dismisses one vital part of the equation: how celebrities are fueling cyberbullying culture.
Rewind back to last summer. Tensions were already running high between Kanye West and Taylor Swift when he released his track “Famous”, containing the immortal couplet “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous,” with the 1989 singer’s representative claiming Swift hadn’t been called or warned about the final line.
So when Kim Kardashian West posted the recording of the Taylor Swift/Kanye West phone call via Snapchat which proved that Swift and West had spoken about the lyrics in his song, and Taylor had given her blessing, she pretty much broke the internet for real this time around. The TV star/businesswoman pre-empted the release on Snapchat by tweeting “do u guys follow me on snapchat? u really should ;),” leveraging a video release into a PR campaign for her own personal brand. It didn’t take long before Swift’s haters took to the hashtag #KimExposedTaylorParty to celebrate, making Kardashian West the front page of the internet for the next few days.
Of course, it’s hard to argue that Swift was a victim here, since the musician’s own tactics had reeked of a more insidious form of bullying, with the star using her 2016 Best Album of the Year Grammy speech to make West squirm.
“As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there—there are going to be people along the way who are going to try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame,” Swift said, without naming names, but knowing, given the recent controversy, that it was perfectly obvious who she was referring to.
But while the reviews of Swift’s Grammys speech ranged from the online equivalent of an eye roll to gently encouraging, Kardashian West’s tirade was seen as brave and necessary. It gave online bullying good PR.
It became open season on anyone who attempted to push back against the mob justice vibe dominating the summer. When Chloe Grace Moretz tweeted “Everyone in this industry needs to get their heads out of a hole and look around to realize what’s ACTUALLY happening in the REAL world,” Khloe Kardashian lashed out, tweeting a collage of photo of Moretz next to a photo which appeared to show the star with her bikini bottom pulled to the side, exposing her anus (Moretz later claimed the second photo was “some girl who was wrongfully photographed”). The attack was so vengeful and unnecessary that Australian actress Ruby Rose got involved, calling Khloe Kardashian out for her bullying. Kardashian’s tweet has since been deleted.
Similarly, when Selena Gomez weighed in, tweeting “There are more important things to talk about… Why can’t people use their voice for something that f**king matters?”, commentators responded with tweets like “you literally have not used your voice, or lack thereof, to speak on any of the tragedies in the world within the past 4 months”, “K, cool. Let’s talk about what ur doing for the black lives matter movement.”
It was a fair reaction: her hectoring tone wasn’t exactly in line with a long history of using Twitter for activism. But it also implied that the internet was sympathetic to Kardashian’s right to make a private quarrel incredibly public and uncomfortable for Swift.
Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of the situation is that cyberbullying’s most high-profile voice at the time of writing is also widely reviled. Donald Trump is as infamous for his individual Twitter attacks as he is for his low approval ratings, with Quinnipiac University reporting last week that his rating had reached a new low, with just 35 percent of voters approving of the President’s handling of the top job.
Trump may well accomplish in his time in office what his wife claimed would be her main focus in the White House while they were on the campaign trail — reducing cyberbullying. Not, of course, via campaigns or raising public awareness or any sort of appropriate presidential mechanism for doing so, but by simply being his repellant online self.
Because while it’s less obvious what’s happening when Kardashian does it with a wink, it’s hard to stave off a shudder when the cyberbully-in-chief is still hounding everyone from the New York Times to SNL to Barack Obama. It exposes the horrible truth about the internet’s trolls: that no amount of power and adulation will ever be enough to keep the hollowness and grasping at bay. That they’ll always need more.
To speak with someone who understands and can help with issues related to bullying, head to teenline.org.
If you want to help someone but unsure of what to do next, head to stopbullying.gov for further information.
In other mental health news, read about why Kid Cudi’s note about depression is a call to action for all of us.
- Lead image: Netflix