Jodee Blanco has always championed and defended the underdog from the time she was very young. The other kids in school didn’t like this and bullied her mercilessly for it.
Blanco, formerly in publishing and the author of many books including Please Stop Laughing at Me, a memoir of her experiences as a child and teen with bullying by her classmates, has toured both private, parochial and public schools speaking about bullying and trying to help the bullied, the bullies and the bystanders. She offers a two-part program “It’s Not Just Joking Around,” in schools to share her story and techniques for students, teachers and administrators to understand why students bully and how bullying makes people feel.
In adulthood, Blanco reconnected with the classmates who bullied her in high school at a reunion. Some reacted with shock to her newly published memoir, but others were wildly supportive. At the reunion, she even connected with a man, who later became her husband. Having survived vicious and cruel bullying herself, she decided it was now her mission to tell other kids that they are not alone, that there is help and another world on the other side of high school.
In her last book, Bullied Kids Speak Out, Blanco turns the lens off of her own experience and focuses on the experiences of present-day youth who are still bullied for their beliefs, their disabilities, the choices they made, and who they are in this world. The fact is bullying still exists today; it’s just gotten worse with the advent of screens and cell phones.
I spoke with Blanco, as well as another expert in how children use screen technology, Nicole Dreiske, Founder and Director of the International Children’s Media Center, to uncover this pernicious problem and how two programs are trying to reform it.
Dreiske offers a program for Pre-K through grammar school called Screen Smart which helps students use screens to learn empathy and healthy tech habits that contribute to positive learning. As a digital media expert, author, and educational innovator, she has 40 years of experience developing advanced educational strategies surrounding screens. Her program trains teachers and students healthy screen habits using brain and body exercises. Screen Smart’s proven techniques improve literacy skills, critical thinking, and social-emotional learning for children of all backgrounds, including ESL students, diverse learners, and autistic children. Her books the Upside of Digital Devices: How to Make Your Child More Screen Smart and Mindful Viewing emphasizes the work she does with her programs. Formerly, as Founder & Artistic Director of Facets Multi-Media, she launched the first and largest international children’s film festival in the Americas, the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. She even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize children’s films at the Oscars. At one of her film festivals, a few pediatricians came up to her and told her that she was changing the way kids view screens. This inspired her research and founding the International Children’s Media Center, based in Chicago, with crusading programs to teach kids empathetic screen use and to make better choices with the media they consume.
As much of bullying today hides behind screens, Dreiske’s research adds to the conversation. Dreiske said that screens make children overly-sensitive to getting their way when it comes to media and de-sensitizes them to the content of what they are viewing overtime.
“If children watch violence at 3, by the time they are 5 they want more violence,” Dreiske said. “Screen viewing affects over time sleep patterns, obesity, and elevated levels of aggression.”
My Eyes were Open but I was asleep
This is what Dreiske hears teachers tell her what their students often say when viewing screens. Dreiske’s program changes brain chemistry around screentime by using physical exercises and self-regulation skills to help students make better choices and understand how people feel on what they are viewing. She uses the Pause and Question method where the screen is paused and she asks students how the character in the film is feeling right now.
“Screens are creating how early childhood memories are coated in the brain,” she said. She quoted a South African study which correlated how when television was first made available murders skyrocketed. “The minute a screen goes on in a home all the foundations of love you taught a child goes out the window. We’ve created a moral abyss that children cannot cross,” she said. “There is a gap on what they see on screens and no one is talking about it.”
It’s all about Empathy
So how does this all relate to bullying? Television and other screen use has made kids more aggressive and less empathetic. The advent of cell phones has given kids a new, more disturbing way to torment the peers they don’t understand. Today’s bullies have an arsenal of tech to choose from to cause pain on their school’s underdogs.
Blanco said that because Facebook, TikTok and social media leaves a lasting imprint on the internet it’s often impossible for the bullied to escape from their past. Bullies now have the opportunity to create cruelty from their finger-tips.
Blanco talked a lot about how her bullies made her feel. “The worst part about it wasn’t the friendship I was being denied, but that I was denied the opportunity to give friendship,” she said.
Finding another outlet for friendship
Blanco wrote a lot of poetry and in journals in high school and joined the local theatre group as an outlet away from the bullying she experienced in the classroom. She recommends that parents and kids find interests and activities outside of town to give a child another opportunity to make friends outside of their school district. “This saved my life,” she said.
Blanco’s work and lived experience has taught her that the bully and the bullied are both struggling and that teachers and students need to be sensitive to the issues their peers bring to the classroom. “One of the biggest reasons kids don’t turn to adults when they have problems is they feel they are going to be judged. Adults need to be upfront and candid with kids their care, addressing these challenges together as a team,” Blanco said.
The use of Compassionate Discipline
Blanco shared a story about how some students in her middle school, held her down and pushed snow into her mouth because she ratted a peer out. She couldn’t breathe. “I thought I was going to die,” she said. The ringleader who instigated this was suspended for a few weeks. They later learned that this student’s mother had left and his father was an alcoholic. He had to steal cafeteria food to feed six younger siblings.
“The answer is compassionate discipline. There is no such thing as a “bad” kid. The bully is someone in pain who is acting out. Traditional punishment only makes the child even more angry and insensitive,” she said. “We need to supplement our approach with more compassionate, restorative forms of discipline.”
Blanco doesn’t want students to get away with cruelty, but she does wish she could go back and wrap her arms round that kid and say “It’s okay. We can help you.”
“Traditional punishment exposes kids to the consequences of doing the wrong thing, but doesn’t show them the joy of doing the right thing,” she said.
Parents need to be attuned to changes in their child. The sudden change of a preppie who goes goth, decreased grades, feigning illnesses to get out of going to school, and increased aggression are all signs that children may be bullied or are crying for help. Parents should talk with their children about more than just how was your day. Without being too nosy, they should show an interest in a child’s life.
Dreiske believes that children need to start a conversation with their parents and other trusted adults about what they watch on screens. Thinking about what a child watches will help them gain empathy and understanding of peers who are different.
“Parents need to talk to kids about what they are experiencing with screens,” said Dreiske.
Dreiske initiated her program in jails and shelters where many people experience bullying and violence. One young tough girl in her program viewed a film about a boy who wanted to be a girl. After the film was over, this tough girl had tears in her eyes and said she had to call her baby brother because she had bullied him over his coming out.
There’s a power in teaching students’ empathy with what they view, and when the viewing is just nonsense.
“Kids in my program often turn off that wrestling program, and choose other media programs that are less violent,” Dreiske said.
If you were or are being bullied, let’s not let the conversation stop with this article. Write me and share about your lived experience. I might include it in another segment on this blog.
Please feel free to contact Jodee on her web site http://jodeeblanco.com, and feel free to check out Nicole’s International Children’s Media Center at http://icmediacenter.org where you can watch her TED Talk and learn more about her programs.