We asked teenagers from around the country to share their thoughts on why bullying happens, what it takes to be an ally, and how schools can promote kindness. Drawing on their daily experiences at middle and high school, teenagers Sophie Bernstein from Missouri, Lily Horton from California, Nadya Khan from New Jersey, Katie Wong from California, and Ricky Yoo from Georgia provided firsthand insight for the adults working to end bullying and create welcoming schools. The teens are part of the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) at Making Caring Common, an initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
We all know that bullying, teasing, and exclusion are wrong. So why do you think young people still bully, tease, and exclude their peers? And why do you think it’s so hard for students to stand up to cruelty?
Nadya: High school does a very good job of making teens feel as though their school is the entire world. Bullying is so prevalent, in my opinion, because teens want to feel superior in that bubble of their school. So it is common that they bring other people down in order to rise in superiority and popularity. On the other hand, students may find it hard to stand up for themselves or their peers when they are experiencing harassment because they are afraid of the popularity of the bully hurting them.
Katie: In my opinion, young people continue to bully, tease, and exclude their peers because they feel insecure with themselves, or they feel intimidated by their target. It is difficult for them to stand up for each other because they are afraid of being ostracized. While standing up for each other is deemed a good thing, it takes courage to stray from the norm because the social aspects of middle and high school stress the importance of fitting in.
Sophie: We’ve seen from preschool children to President Trump that if bullying behavior is condoned, it continues. Students need to be taught how to stand up for each other and given the skill set to stop bullying.
Lily: People who put others down can often come across as “cool” or “superior,” which prevents others from standing up for the people being bullied. People might not want to stand up to a bully because they want to be accepted and don't want to be bullied themselves.
What does it take to be an ally, and to speak up against bullying when you see it?
Ricky: I think it takes courage and a sense of what is morally just. You have to be brave enough to take a stand for what is right, no matter the consequences.
Katie: Choosing to stand up for somebody is something that many teens have struggled with. Some feel afraid of making the “wrong” decision, socially. If a student chooses to become an ally, they must be ready to face repercussions, but also should feel proud of their decision to make positive change.
Nadya: It may be hard, but your actions to help someone in need can overpower anything and everything negative. If you are a good person and know that what you are doing is helping someone, then all the negative tension from the situation cannot hurt you.
Lily: I think that being an ally is simply standing up for something you believe is right. If you see someone being bullied, you should understand that it isn't okay and that you need to stand up for that person. All it takes is letting someone know that what she is saying is mean and not okay. You can often stop the bullying by simply acknowledging how wrong it is.
What do you wish your school were doing differently to create an environment without bullying, teasing, and exclusion — a place where students could express themselves for who they are without fear?
Nadya: Whether it be through posters or morning announcements, I would like to see/hear my school administration stressing the importance of kindness and inclusion in school.
Lily: I think my school should do a better job of encouraging people to embrace who they are, rather than who they think others want them to be. I think my school should support people to express themselves without being scared of what people might think.
Ricky: I feel like more adult-youth engagement could facilitate an environment where victims of bullying are able to reach for help when needed. Adult faculty can serve both as teachers and as mentors. Having an adult figure in one's life is important. It makes sense. They usually have experienced more and know more than teenagers. Having insight from an adult could help teenagers handle the pressure of school life.
Sophie: I think every school receiving federal funds should be mandated to have a mission statement that includes antibullying clauses, and every student should have to sign a form to stop bullying when they see it or know of it happening.
Katie: I wish we could have a designated spot or club on campus that offered a discreet but fun place to make new friends and express yourself openly, among other people who feel the same way as you. I think it is important to offer other activities, such as lunchtime art or card making for veterans, which are different from traditional spirit events. This would help everyone feel represented at school and know that there is a safe community waiting for them with open arms.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
We Want to Hear from You
Our country is polarized: How is that showing up in your school? What are you doing to protect students, confront discrimination, prevent bullying, and foster inclusion? Usable Knowledge would like to hear from you. Join us on Facebook and Twitter, using #OneAllHGSE. Send your advice and resources to email@example.com, and we’ll share as much as we can. Read more at One and All.