Sunday, February 20, 2011

marketing meanness, and possible alternatives

I’m trying to figure out whether I can be of any meaningful help to students at our local high school who are being bullied. The problem is still new to me. I didn’t go to high school; my friends were of all different ages, and the same-age ones I did have were part of a fairly small group of people who were mostly aware and unashamed of being different in a variety of ways.

I have been aware of particular instances of bullying among the students we’ve tried to help. I hadn’t really understood how systemic and how damaging bullying gets until two months ago, when I overheard a hall monitor trying to get a student to go back to her classroom. The student, on the verge of tears, said she couldn’t; a fellow student had started a rumor about her, it had spread, people gave her looks and said filthy things about her, she couldn’t take it any longer, if she hit anyone else or left the building on he own she’d be in serious trouble, and she couldn’t call her mother to pick her up early, because her mother was already in trouble at work for having left early to pick her daughter up on other days.

After that I kept hearing stories. A student said it is just miserable being a girl in high school; you can be mocked for not having sex, but if you do have sex you’re branded a slut and discussed explicitly and endlessly. A grandmother told how her granddaughter gets off the bus every day and sprints for the bathroom because she doesn’t dare to use the bathroom at the school. An administrator said that kids arrive at school fighting mad because of obscene or insulting messages about them that their classmates have spread electronically.

I don’t think our district is unusually rough. Earlier this year a student group from a very affluent high school visited. Some of them spoke of being upset by the verbal and physical humiliations they often saw other students being put through. Others said no, there was no bullying problem at their school; the only kids who were picked on were those who deserved it. Deserved it how? I asked. Well, they were obnoxious, they were weird, they didn’t even try to fit in. But those same students said that in any case they’d never intervene on behalf of a person who was being picked on, because if they did they’d ‘get the target put on them’.

I started researching online, at the library, by picking the brains of my friends. I met with some school administrators and started talking about how I and others from the community might be able to support their anti-bullying measures. And I started to notice that the bullying problem was symptomatic of other issues pretty deeply embedded in our culture.

I read that bullies were likely to be substantially more popular--often among adults as well as fellow students--than other kids. This seemed very bizarre to me at first. Then I read Susan Linn’s rather chilling book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, which describes how advertising messages are designed to convince young people that they aren’t smart, sexy, popular, happy, worthy, but that they could be if they bought the right stuff. Apparently a lot of kids are convinced; in the things I’ve read a lot of people talk about bullying others or being bullied because they don’t have the right stuff. And I just finished reading Generation MySpace by Candice Kelsey, which talks (among other things) about how the lines between friendship and marketing get blurred as advertisers pay popular people to promote their products to friends, and as kids learn to market themselves electronically in order to get a large enough friend list to show that they’re not hopelessly uncool. A large part of this ‘marketing’ seems to involve looking sexy, having cool-looking friends and not being associated with anyone unattractive or unusual.

The really sad part is that both advertising and the electronic culture sell themselves as solutions to the wish for power, for community, and for self-worth, all of which they actually undermine. One advertiser quoted in Consuming Kids explains that “Kids respond well to products that allow them to make their own choices and give them a sense of control. That is because kids have very little control over their own lives...Candy can help satisfy the child’s unmet desire for control in a number of ways.” The same kid of arguments are made for cigarettes, video games, and other not terribly empowering things. Young teenagers in Generation MySpace explain that “Getting comments from friends and strangers makes me feel like I really matter..I feel so validated, like someone thinks I’m good enough to be friended...”

So what, besides the constant distraction of marketing, gives people the idea that they don’t matter? that they don’t have meaningful choices? that they’re not valid? that no one would want to befriend them? This doesn’t seem to be a problem only for a few kids with difficult families or biochemical imbalances. In fact, another advertiser quoted in Consuming Kids noted that “What used to be trusted, reliable and consistent sources of support and direction (education, government, religion...) are now objects of a great deal of cynicism and rejection. So what’s left to hold onto? In each human being there is a basic capital of trust,respect, and love which needs to be invested in something or somebody... Could brands take over the role that religions and philosophical movements used to own?”

I suppose they might, if we let them, if we don’t provide a meaningful alternative. Back when I was in my early teens I joined a church meeting about youth religious education. I was the only teenager there. Various adults talked about how the religious ed. program had to be made snappier so that it could compete with video games. I said that I really wasn’t looking for a video game-type experience, that I wanted a chance to work in-depth with some tough issues--including coming-of-age questions and social justice--and maybe to get out and do some kind of community service work. They said how nice it was for me to come and participate, and they went back to talking abut how to make sessions more amusing. Now that I’ve more or less grown up I still find myself in meetings where other adults say that kids just are constantly wired and distracted, there’s nothing to be done about it, and we have to figure out how to package community service, character education, basic education, etc. excitingly enough so that they can compete for a little piece of mind space.

I don’t think it has to be this way. The Generation MySpace author writes about taking students for weeklong camping trips without their electronics; she says they seem to relate to each other more constructively while they’re away, and that as they drive back into civilization and get into the billboard zone they groan and say they don’t want to have to deal with all that stuff. We’ve heard similar responses from some people who’ve spent time here working and walking and singing and praying and being unplugged. There is still a basic hunger for the created world, for silence, for shared work, for real (not virtual) community, for meaning. And as people work and pray together they still can start to let their prejudices down and know each other as people. This isn't an experience that can be packaged and sold. I don't always know how to invite people in as effectively as I would like to. But it seems to me essential that we keep offering an alternative for people who are ready to try it.

I would like to hear from any of you who are working on parts of this problem. I’d be grateful for stories, resources, clarifying questions, parts of the truth that I may still be missing.


Anonymous said...

I love this post. The problem of bullying preys on my mind as a mother of three kids, especially since two of them have special needs and have already been bullied at times in elementary school. I think these electronic games, movies, websites are much like junk food. They trick us into thinking we're getting what we need and actually they're destroying the very doors of perception that would lead us to what we really do need, and that makes us return to them, to at least get the illusion of being fed. My own kids have been using them more and more and I'm trying to find the strength and wisdom to withdraw them.

The Baltimore Yearly Meeting camping program seems to do the kind of work you're talking about. Children get unplugged from those destructive messages and get in touch with themselves, each other, and the Spirit. They are changed by it. I believe NEYM also has camps? It is sometimes possible to convince kids from outside the RSOF to attend. (Quakers are in the minority in BYM's camps.)

For several years, many of us parents in my meeting kept asking how our RE program could be improved so that children would want to come to it. I thought somehow it had to become more like camp and less like school because the children often don't experience school as a nurturing place. Just last weekend we had a training workshop in "Godly Play," or actually the Quaker version called "Faith and Play." It was led by two Friends from Philadelphia YM and FGC. I thought it was fantastic.

My hope is that if our work with our children is fruitful that will begin to influence the larger community in many ways. But I would also like to find ways to reach out to the public schools directly.
Thank you,

Alice Y. said...

Thanks for writing this Joanna. I think it can be a really frightening world for teenagers.

Wonder whether you have come across the Place2be movement?
They are a UK charity and maybe there are similar organizations in the USA that could provide resources?
I wonder if some kind of support group could be set up for/among the kids? I am thinking about how good radical christian perspective can be for those who are outsiders together. At best our religious tradition can give us the place to stand in resistance to the pressures of marketing/consumerism and so on.

Another book you might like, about functional emotional attachment and children/young people: 'Hold onto your kids' by Mate and Neufeld

Joanna Hoyt said...

Rosemary, thank you for writing. I'm sorry your children have been bullied in school. I’m glad they have good support from you, the Meeting, the BYM camps.
My brother went to a Quaker camp in ME, and found it much more positive and less mean-spirited in culture than the non-Quaker camps we had gone to before. By the time we became Friends I was too old for the camping program.
I’ve heard many good things about the Godly Play program, and I hope it will work well in your Meeting. I think when I was younger I would have enjoyed that kind of chance to enter into the stories on many levels.
Good luck with finding ways to engage with the school. If you find your way into a constructive partnership I’d be glad to hear about it. I’ve been able to pass on a few resources to local school admins, and have gotten permission to give out anti-bullying material to kids on my monthly school visits. That’s nowhere near enough, but it’s a beginning.
James Garbarino and Ellen deLara’s book And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence is a fairly good book written for parents of middle and high school students trying to work with their local schools and communities, and Operation Respect ( has some good questions, exercises and resources for elementary and middle school educators and aprents, and has some good resources for older students, and has good advice on navigating firendship, popularity, conflict and bullying for girls.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Alice, thank you for the resources. I like the look of Place2be. My impression is that the UK and Canada are further along in anti-bullying/culture-changing work than the US--no surprise there--but there is some online support available here, and some suggestions for finding and keeping actual friends and confidants. That's good but not good enough.
I have raised the support-group possibility with the superintendent and the middle-school principal and counselor.They seem to be thinking it over. I agree about the importance of spiritual practice in resisting the amrket culture, and I do think Christianity has a lot to offer in thjsi regard, but not soemthign that can be offered through the school. And the student I know who seems most concerned about anti-bullying is a definite agnostic, and is dismayed by the gay-bashing and anti-immigrant comments she hears from her ostensibly Christian classmates. I do tell her that those positions aren't necessarily associated with Christianity...
I've downloaded the first chapter of Hold Onto Your Kids, and like the look of it. It reminds me somewhat of one of my other favorite family books, Mary Pipher's The Shelter Of Each Other.

Joanna Hoyt said...

P.S. Rosemary, I liked your definition of the danger or seduction of electronics. i think it's ahrd to confront. FOr the alst 3 years we've organized local Screen-Free week activities which seem to get a few people started thinking about how they spend their time and whether it's worth it. There are a few helpful resources on media fasting at


(Sorry, I don't know how to make these into live links)

Chris Mohr said...

Yes, thank you, Joanna, for this thoughtful post.

I can't say that bullying absolutely never happens in my children's school, but I'm sure it's pretty rare, and it would be taken seriously if accusations were made. Last year in the 6th grade, for example, someone left several nasty, anonymous notes for other students. In response, they held a gradewide meeting for business to let the students sit together and process the incidents and their reactions. I don't think the instigator was ever found, but the person stopped after the communitywide response and expression of hurt and pain.

At the school there is also a definite bias against electronic devices and status symbols. During the school's first several years, the staff and faculty had an explicit policy never to compliment students' stuff. If a child said, "I have new shoes," the teacher could respond, "Oh, I see you do have new shoes. Do you like them?" as opposed to, "How pretty!" This was meaningful to me. I think this has relaxed lately, though, as the school has grown.

It being a Friends school, there is also weekly meeting for worship. You can't do that in a public school, but a time for quiet reflection time could be an acceptable activity for a support group if you get one going.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you for the ideas. I like the no-compliments-on-stuff policy. When my family led an afterschool program a few years ago we asked volunteers not to talk with kids about the stuff they had (or said they had), since some kids lied about what they had in order to sound successful, and others got jealous. The policy seemed to help a little.

During our summer nature program we have the kids spend 15 minutes of quiet time observing the world around them each day, and we notice them settling in a way that seems helpful, though we don't speak of it as worship.

I have read, and talked with the school staff, about bringing students from different social groups together to work on anti-bullying techniques or crating a more respectful school culture. I can see that a support group for bullied students could be helpful, and I also wonder if people would avoid going to it because of a perceived stigma, given the apparently widespread attitude that people who are bullied deserve it. Do you know of bullying support groups that have worked out well?