Why Keaton’s Viral Video Will Intensify the Bullying Problem
Dec. 15th 2017
Our anti-bullying activities have unintended consequeses
Few people care about the suffering of victims of bullying more than I do. I have been teaching kids for 40 years how to stop being bullied without anyone’s help, and ever since the Columbine shooting in 1999 made bullying a worldwide concern, I have devoted my life to this issue. Before I ever produced any commercial products for dealing with bullying, I wrote free manuals that teach children and schools how to put a stop to bullying.
There have been numerous videos of bullied kids that went viral, but the most recent one has probably set records. The tear-jerking video of 11-year-old Keaton Jones has been seen by tens of millions of people in a matter of a few days. The story has been carried by countless news outlets, including the most prestigious of all, the New York Times. Leading celebrities have added their voices to the outrage over Keaton’s plight and offered him their support, including invitations to events that many people would give their right arm for.
As usual regarding bullying, I will be presenting a contrarian analysis of the story.  But please don’t accuse me of not caring about Keaton and the countless children who are suffering like him. Had Keaton had the opportunity to read and watch my free resources on Bullies2Buddies.com, he probably would not have needed to make the video.
My goal is not to downplay Keaton’s suffering. It is absolutely real and intense. My goal is to prevent other bullied children from suffering needlessly. As I will be explaining, it is not only doubtful whether Keaton’s video will end up solving his bullying problem, it could end up intensifying the bullying epidemic.
Asking the wrong question
The question Keaton made famous is, “Why do they [kids] bully?” Not surprisingly, this has led to multitudinous condemnations of bullies and treatises about why children become evil.
But there is an important question that the media are failing to ask: Why is bullying still an epidemic?
It’s not as though bullying has been an unrecognized problem that only came to light with Keaton’s video. Bullying has been a major social issue in the U.S. and much of the world for at least 18 years. All 50 states have passed school anti-bullying laws. Innumerable books and programs have been produced for dealing with bullying. Bullying is a favorite subject of study of researchers.
NASA sent men to the moon within a decade of President Kennedy declaring the mission. Yet after almost two decades of anti-bullying efforts, it is a growing epidemic. Why?
The answer to Keaton’s question
Before I discuss the reason for the growing epidemic, I would like to offer Keaton a simple answer to his question: Why do kids bully?
It’s because human beings aren’t angels. Living creatures are programmed to strive for dominance. Being on top feels good and being on the bottom feels lousy, as you have discovered. And if we get upset when people put us down, they are on top, so they continue picking on us.
But the bullies aren’t “them.” They are “us.” We are all capable of being mean and even of enjoying it. If you’re not sure about this, ask yourself if you’re always nice to your siblings and parents. Pay attention to the comedy shows you like. You will notice that you are laughing at other people looking stupid, clumsy, and miserable. Look at the news media. While everyone loves calling President Trump a bully, they also love ridiculing him and even fighting to destroy him. And look at the articles beginning to appear about your family. Writers are portraying your parents and even you as racists, as though it has something to do with your being bullied, and as though you deserve it. Whatever happened to their empathy? You see, it’s not only kids in school who like to bully people. An excellent source for understanding this issue better is Richard Smith’s book, The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature.
And there is a second factor that makes meanness possible. It’s that we humans are masters of rationalizing our own bad behavior. Leon Festinger, the psychologist who pioneered the field of cognitive dissonance, found that when we treat people badly, we justify it, convincing ourselves that the people we are hurting deserve it. That’s why writers feel so self-righteous in attacking Trump and your family. They don’t realize they are engaging in the same behavior they are condemning in others. Few people think they’re bullies.
Now for the reason why the bullying epidemic is getting worse rather than better.
The war against bullying is counterproductive
The war against bullying began after the Columbine massacre and has intensified after every high-profile bullying case. This warfare strategy is based on the teachings of the previously obscure field of bullying psychology, created in the 1970s by a Norwegian psychology professor, Dan Olweus.
The basic tenet of the bullying field is that children have a fundamental human right to go to school without others disturbing them. Children must inform the school authorities when bullying occurs so that the school can conduct investigations and bring the wrongdoers to justice. This process, we have been lead to believe, will make the bullying stop.
Because this tenet is universally accepted as true, whenever schools fail to make bullying stop, people assume that the school either did nothing or didn’t do enough to make the bullying stop.
This assumption is false. When schools get involved investigating bullying complaints, hostilities immediately intensify, as each side tries to convince the school authorities that they are innocent and the other is guilty. It’s the same process that happens in a court of law.
Intervention is not a neutral process. In some cases, the school’s intervention will succeed in resolving the problem. But if it doesn’t make it better, it will probably make it worse. Both sides get angrier with each other. The alleged bullies get angry at the school for taking their alleged victims’ side against them, and they feel justified in continuing to torment the alleged victims for getting them in trouble.
I have written about this phenomenon ad nauseum. But I keep writing about it because until the public – and especially the leaders responsible for making anti-bullying policies – recognizes this dynamic, the bullying epidemic will continue to frustrate society, school staff will waste precious time playing detective and judge, and children will continue to suffer.
Not one media source reporting or commenting on Keaton’s case has considered the effect of school intervention on the intensity of his bullying problem. All they have done is promote the stereotypes of rampant evil bullies and negligent schools. As reported in Knox News:
“I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before now, because I know several parents that have gone to the school with the same problem, and not just the middle school, but all the schools,” said Amanda Hensley, a parent with two students in the school district who said she is a neighbor of Horace Maynard Middle School student Keaton Jones.
“I know several people who have gone over there and it’s the same old story,” Hensley said. “Somebody’s going to end up getting hurt if they don’t get it under control.”
But is it true that the schools are not doing what they’re supposed to? Not if you ask the school authorities in Keaton’s district. As Knox News goes on to report:
Union County Public Schools officials said Monday that bullying is not tolerated and that they have looked into the incident.
“To fulfill our mission of educating all children in Union County Public Schools, we must provide an academic environment that is safe, civil and supportive,” said Director of Schools Jimmy Carter in a statement.
“We do not and will not tolerate bullying and have a policy in place that addresses conduct taking place on school grounds, at any school-sponsored activity, on school-supported transportation or at any official school bus stop.
“With any incident of bullying that is reported to our administrators, we follow the process of our policy and immediately investigate the alleged incidents. The privacy of all parties and witnesses to complaints will be respected in accordance with state and federal law.”
Horace Maynard Middle School Principal Greg Clay said he wasn’t aware of Jones being repeatedly bullied and that the incident described in the video had been resolved weeks ago.
“It’s not as rampant as the video would have you believe,” Clay said. “I can’t tell you what was done, but I can tell you action was taken with the children.”
Like just about every other school in the nation, Keaton’s school does not tolerate bullying and follows the mandated procedures.
The problem is that the mandated procedures usually make the problem worse. We can be quite sure that the reason the cruelty of students towards Keaton escalated is because of the school’s efforts to intervene on his behalf with the standard law-enforcement-type procedures. Principal Clay apparently wasn’t aware he made the situation worse because he naively thought he had already “resolved the problem weeks ago.”
The ironic thing is that students themselves, especially once they have arrived at the age of ten or eleven, are aware of the danger of getting the school involved against other students. Oklahoma New 4 reported:
Keaton had been experiencing trouble with five bullies. The milk and ham incidents came days before Thanksgiving.
Jones had contacted the school and been told it wouldn’t happen again, she said, but Keaton had implored her to back down. He didn’t want to be labeled a tattletale.
As in Keaton’s case, it is often the parents that insist on getting the school involved, against the wishes of the child. This is not the parents’ fault. They are simply following the advice the experts have been promoting. They have no way of knowing that the advice is often counterproductive.
And the reason Keaton’s viral story is going to make more kids suffer is because it will spur parents to intensify their pressure on schools to solve their children’s bullying problems. Then the schools will heighten their anti-bully policing efforts, which will intensify the warfare between the students involved.
Other unintended effects of Keaton’s video
The viral video had some short-term benefits for Keaton. He has become a celebrity, and leading celebrities have been trying to outdo each other in offering him support and benefits, like invitations to special events. Keaton is living it up now.
But will this solve his problem with bullies in school? When he eventually returns, will everyone be nice to him, or will some kids have a stronger urge to ridicule him with even more sophisticated insults, based perhaps on his family’s supposed racism, or from jealousy over his celebrity status? Will he be any better equipped to handle the bullying? Perhaps the boost to his self-esteem bestowed by his celebrity saviors will enable him to withstand the barbs of fellow students. But there’s no guarantee. Unless some of them taught him practical tools for putting the bullying to a stop, the problem may continue as before.
And what lessons were learned by all the bullied children who watched Keaton’s video and the resulting hullaballoo? That the solution to their bullying problem is to make a video and then celebrities will come to their rescue? There are roughly one or two serious victims of bullying in every classroom from grade three and up. If these millions of children post videos of their misery, will there be enough celebrities available to help them all? And will celebrities get jaded by the flood of videos of children vying for their attention?
Will Keaton’s video make bullied viewers any wiser about dealing with bullying? Or will it reinforce their conviction that bullying is absolutely unbearable, an experience about which one has no choice but to feel terribly hurt? If they indeed become more upset by bullying, they will end up getting bullied even more.
What we need to do
Keaton’s video should, as intended, bring awareness to the suffering of the countless children who are bullied. Keaton does deserve our sympathy, for his suffering is real. We should admire him for having the courage to make his feelings public.
What we should not do, though, is present him as a hero, someone worthy of emulation. He is suffering because the people in his life – including his parents and the school personnel – have failed to effectively teach him how to stop being bullied. Just as we would not glorify a student who isn’t grasping math, and whose parents and teachers have failed to teach him, we should not be glorifying Keaton either, as doing so will inevitably encourage more children to feel and act like helpless victims.
Instead, what we need to be doing is teaching children how to handle being bullied on their own, without getting the school authorities involved against their perceived bullies. Kids like Keaton are desperate to learn the solution to their problem, and the solution is so simple:
- Keaton complains that kids call him ugly. All he needs to do is answer, “I think you’re really good-looking!”
- Keaton complains that kids make fun of his scar. All he needs to do is answer, “Yeah, it’s a bummer. I had a large tumor on my face that had to be removed.”
- Keaton complains that kids make fun of his nose. All he needs to do is answer, “Yeah, you have a perfect nose. You’re so lucky!”
[Note: The above is not a comprehensive representation of the process I use to teach kids how to handle bullying, which usually takes at least half-an-hour. They are examples of immediately effective responses that kids can use to put a stop to the insults. It is also not meant to address crimes of assault and battery or vandalism.]
Such responses will immediately shut up his insulters, but it will also make them like him because he is complimenting them. And they will never have the urge to spill food and milk on him.
And the nice thing is that it costs nothing to teach this to him. The teachers and counselors that can do this are already getting a salary. Instead of spending hours on counterproductive investigations, they can be spending minutes on productive education. I just came across an exception. Here is an article by Katie Lowenstein that takes a similarly critical view: Stand for What? Our Delusion of Supporting Bullying Victims.
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