image from ABC Family’s Cyberbully
Talking to teenagers about stuff like using the Internet responsibly and bullying (or sex, drugs and rock and roll for that matter) can be tricky. I have one boy (17) who clams up when I raise difficult topics. And a girl (14) who tells me—in no uncertain terms—to back off. Both responses are difficult to deal with. Sometimes I just forge ahead and blurt out the information I need to convey despite this wall of resistance. But I prefer to be clever about engaging my teens in conversation. My favorite way is by using a TV show or movie to get things started. When the players being discussed are fictional characters rather than my own teens, it’s much easier to have a calm discussion. So when the folks at Netflix offered me a list of their favorite movies for opening a conversation with kids about bullying for National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, I was intrigued.
Netflix recommended some titles that address bullying head-on to provide some characters around which to hang a conversation, and talk about actions and choices that lead to positive outcomes. The critically acclaimed Bully is a hard-to-watch but powerful documentary about bullying in U.S. schools. In The War, Kevin Costner comes back from Vietnam and helps his son (Elijah Wood) stand up to a group of bullies. Billy Elliot is about a boy in a coal mining family who decides to take up ballet (a classic bullying scenario). Fat Boy Chronicles is the story of a boy who moves to a new school and is bullied. And Cyberbully—my daughter’s pick for opening a dialogue on this topic—concerns a girl who is bullied online. Even movies about cartoonish heroism can give kids role models with the courage to stand up for what's right. Netflix suggests The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, Justice League Unlimited, Hercules, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Ben 10: Alien Force.
Watching any of these movies with your kids is a start. But this isn’t a conversation you can have once and tick off your to-do list. Bullying—and in particular cyberbullying—is a moving target. The social media sites where bullying can play out change all the time, the tools within those sites for blocking and reporting bullying change pretty often, and bullying itself can shift almost daily. “We call it an ecosystem,” Common Sense Media’s parenting editor Caroline Knorr told me recently. “In it, the bully is not always the same person. One day the bully might be a bystander while someone else takes a bully role. And maybe the original target of the bullying reverses roles with the bully.”
The goal here is to give kids the skills they need to negotiate this complex social environment, both online and off, on their own. And that means they need to understand both the technical tools and the social ones. “It's important for parents to understand that none of this is simple,” says Knorr. “In fact, it is very complex. Because of this, we advocate that parents not only help kids understand how to use the technical tools but also help kids believe they are stewards of the Internet.” Their actions matter not only to those people in their own immediate circle but also to the social ecosystem of the entire online world.
Once you open this conversation, there are so many things to cover: how to block or report a bully from a social network, empathy, courage, heroism, patience, thinking before you act and much more. “Bullies try to intimidate and isolate their victims,” says Knorr. “So the strongest thing you can do if you see someone being bullied is to befriend that person.” But that—like many things when it comes to standing up for right over wrong—is a choice that requires courage, empathy and an understanding that your own actions matter as much, if not more, than the bully’s. So this conversation, as many of the movies listed here illustrate, is not just about bullies. It’s about what it means to be a good human being. You’re unlikely to get that one solved in one afternoon of movie watching. But a movie is still a good place to start.
Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.