May 31, 2004

Mean girls and boys online

By: Joanne McNeil

Orson Scott Card’s protagonist in Ender’s Game outwitted a school bully by manipulating his e-mail account to send an embarrassing message to the classroom, but what if the class nerd isn’t the most technologically savvy? Add the omnipresence of advanced gadgetry along with bad parents and incompetent teachers as another reason why 21st century bullying is more vicious than the bullying we remember. Kids these days can Photoshop the heads of their enemies onto pornographic pictures or post gossip anonymously using message boards and “live journals.”

As a nexus of technology and psychology, “cyber-bullying” is a hot topic in education policy. Many point to the example of an overweight Canadian teenager dubbed “Star Wars Kid,” whose homemade video of himself using a golf ball retriever as a light sabre slipped onto KaZaa and made him last summer’s Mahir. Humiliated, Ghyslain Raza left school and sought counseling.

Raza is hardly alone. The Internet eliminates a bully’s accountability. The resulting damage is compounded by its elusiveness to adults. Few parents and teachers are versed in teenage Internet whereabouts. Particular incidents of victimization may be too abstract for adults to understand–and intervene.

Following Columbine, high school social dynamics are now scrutinized like never before. But awareness of these issues has yet to render conflict resolution. Nonfiction books like Queen Bees and Wannabes and Odd Girl Out ask us to imagine “Girl World,” where social acceptance is as much of a daily necessity as food and water. These books give us insight but no answers. The trend continued in last year’s independent films Thirteen and Elephant, each offering bleak visions and no solutions.

Then there’s the hot teen comedy Mean Girls, which has made over $50 million in three weeks. The film has gained attention not just as an updated satire of the high school caste system, but for its attempt at a therapeutic resolution. After a scathing gossip digest called “the Burn Book” is released to the student body, North Score High School math teacher Ms. Norbury, played by Mean Girls screenwriter Tina Fey, confronts the “mean girls” with a heartfelt lecture in the school gymnasium. Of course, this is the least plausible part of the film.

Real “mean girls” would laugh Ms. Norbury out of the gymnasium and immediately reconstruct a “burn book” after their conflict resolution lecture ended. And let us not forget, as this film does, that there are “mean boys,” too. Their style of verbal harassment is less direct than that of their female counterparts, but it is more often laced with violence.

There is no easy answer. For every concerned parent, there is a negligent one, and his child’s antics are probably far more influential on the student body than the former’s. High school teenagers are no-holds-barred nasty–and e-savvy enough to be sneaky about it–but this is a symptom of a much larger problem. The “one size fits all” education status quo is what fosters teenage cruelty. We need to take a top-down approach to combat this problem. An end to bullying of any sort requires a restructuring of the public school system.

Joanne McNeil is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her website is