An Interview with Rachel Simmons on the Mean Girl Scene

Michele Borba September 28, 2011 Comments Off on An Interview with Rachel Simmons on the Mean Girl Scene

Q&A with Rachel Simmons, author of the must-read and revised ODD GIRL OUT

One of the women I admire most in the fight on bullying is Rachel Simmons. Her work on building leadership with young girls is just profound and her books are magnificent. I met Rachel in New York recently and was even more impressed (if that’s possible) with her. I am also delighted that her glorious New York Times bestseller, Odd Girl Out has been revised and updated. Here are Rachel’s answers to some of the most pressing questions parents ask.

Make sure to get a copy of her revised book, Odd Girl Out. It is a must read!

Why did you decide to revise this book?  How did you do so?

There are two reasons I revised the book. First, when I wrote Odd Girl Out, it was as an observer and reporter. I never expected to become part of the story myself, but that’s exactly what happened: I became an educator and wound up devoting my life to girls’ wellness and empowerment. Over the last decade, I have developed my own strategies to help parents and girls confront bullying and have worked all over the world helping communities deal with the problem.

Second, when I first wrote Odd Girl Out, girls were just beginning to forge their relationship with social media. Today, the Internet is the 21st century bathroom wall, and it’s created a new, powerful strain of bullying. Moreover, it’s impossible to talk about, work with or raise girls without understanding the role of social media and technology in their lives. There is now a seamless integration between girls’ virtual and real lives. I needed to tell those stories, too.

Revising Odd Girl Out felt like adding on a wing to an old beloved home: I wanted to preserve the character and quality of the original structure while adding some new spark. Odd Girl Out’s new chapters contain the vibrant voices of girls and educators I interviewed, along with a decade of strategies, insights and a-ha moments I’ve collected.

What kind of research did you do for this updated edition?

When I first wrote Odd Girl Out, I had my own eight year old bullied self in mind. I wanted any girl to be able to pick it up and read a story about another girl like her, so she would know she was not alone. For the new chapters on social media, I interviewed more girls in middle and high school about their digital experiences. Their stories about cyberbullying, sexting and day-to-day online drama bring the sprawling digital social universe of BFF 2.0 to life. My insights about social media also come from daily observation of and interaction with girls online.

For the chapters on parenting and educator strategies, I relied on a decade of consulting work I have done with scores of schools and hundreds of families. I also conducted in-depth interviews with my kitchen cabinet of expert school counselors, administrators and classroom teachers.

How has the public response to girl bullying changed in the past ten years?  Positively?  Negatively?

It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, there has been remarkable social change. When I wrote OGO, there were only a handful of research studies on girls’ psychological aggression. Today, the number of researchers studying girls’ aggression has skyrocketed. Scores of studies have been completed and published, providing the first critical mass of research on girls’ psychological aggression. Today, it is harder to argue that the cruelty of girls is a trivial phase, rite of passage or “girls being girls.” Just a few years ago, the term “relational aggression” was largely unknown. Now, training to understand and intervene in girls’ aggression is increasingly common in school districts across the country.

State and federal governments are also taking notice. Today, many states have passed legislation requiring schools to create anti-bullying policy (my father, a state legislator, is the primary sponsor of Maryland’s Safe Schools Reporting Act). In 2010, the federal government launched Stop Bullying Now, a wide ranging, multi-agency initiative to reduce bullying in schools. And news media is also taking notice: after several tormented children and teens committed suicide, the plight of bullied youth and their families became breaking news.

At the same time, girl bullying has also attracted a more troubling kind of attention. Reality television show producers have discovered that mean girls sell, and they churn out scores of programs featuring breathtakingly aggressive females. These programs reward their stars with book deals, product lines and other spoils of celebrity – and have gained a rapt teen following. The scramble to commodify the mean girl has trickled down to even the youngest consumers: children’s television programming now highlights an array of snarky, sarcastic girl characters. As a result, girls now observe ten times the amount of relational aggression on television that they see in real life. In an analysis of television programs, researchers found that the meanest female characters on television were frequently rewarded for their behavior. Invariably, these changes in the culture inflect girls’ relationships.

How has the advent and advancement of technology changed girl bullying?

When I first wrote Odd Girl Out, there was no texting, no Facebook, no cell phone cameras, no video chats. Today, girl bullying has gone digital. Cell phones and computers give users the ability to destroy relationships and reputations with a few clicks. Social media has been a game changer, transforming the landscape of girl bullying.

Technology has also altered girls’ everyday relationships, indeed girls’ very sense of self. It is not uncommon for a girl to say, “I don’t exist if I’m not on Facebook.” Many girls sleep with their cell phones on their chests, waiting for them to vibrate with news in the night. They treat their cell phones like extensions of their bodies and are inconsolable if they lose access. In 2010, the average teen texted 3000 times per month.

There is now a seamless integration between girls’ virtual and real lives, and this new era of BFF 2.0 has brought both blessing and curse. On the one hand, cell phones and social networking sites like Facebook allow girls to connect in exhilarating new ways.  On the other hand, Facebook makes many girls anxious, jealous and even paranoid about their friendships. With a few clicks, girls can see photographs of parties they were excluded from, or conversations they were not invited to join.

What are the three most important tips to help girls navigate cyberbullying?

1. Stop, Block & Report: Parents should follow three steps when their child is cyberbullied. First, stop. Your daughter should immediately stop engaging with the cyberbully. She should not retaliate or, in the event of an anonymous attack, attempt to track the bully down. This is not a battle a girl can ever “win,” and responding usually only provokes the cyberbully.

Second, block the cyberbully. This can be done for texting, email and chat (if you don’t know how, Google “how to block a user on [type in the website name, phone or software].” If necessary, delete old accounts and create new ones for your daughter.

Third, report the cyberbully. Encourage your daughter to save or print the offending material, and then discuss it with you. No matter how upset you are, encouraging your daughter to retaliate teaches her that aggression is appropriate self-defense and exposes to her more danger.

2. You are there no matter what. Staying calm as a parent is key. An alarmist response – shouting, crying, making threats against the school or other families — will upset your daughter further and probably silence her the next time something happens. Make sure your child knows she won’t lose her devices if she is targeted (though a temporary hiatus may be called for in order to cool off), and that she can come to you for any reason and under any circumstance. Let her know you will work with her on the right response.

3. Document everything. Save texts, print messages, and take screen shots of pages from the web. Collect evidence to make your case with the school, law enforcement or another family.

How can parents help mitigate cyberbullying?

Talk to your child about safe, ethical and responsible use of social media. Just as you have taught her to be kind and respectful to others in the “real world,” you must also be clear about those expectations in the digital universe. Communicate your expectations for her behavior online and explain why your family values respectful communication. Make it clear that technology is a privilege she needs to earn and maintain, and that it can be taken away. Consider having her sign a contract explaining what safe, ethical and responsible use means – and articulating clear consequences for violating it. Finally, ensure she knows exactly what to do if someone is cruel to her online (see Stop, Block and Report above).

Be the “mean mom” and set limits on social media use. As most any parent will tell you, kids have been pressuring parents into giving up technology access and privileges long before parents are comfortable doing it. Girls tell their parents they will be losers, left out or worse if they do not keep up with the latest gadget. Parents, fearful that their children’s predictions are real, or simply wanting to avoid World War Three during precious family time, oblige. They go against their gut desire to protect their kids in favor of keeping the peace and helping their kids keep up.

When I travel around the country, I am taken aside by women who identify themselves to me as “Mean Moms,” by which they mean they are parents who say “no.” This is a troubling sign of the times. When using your authority is equated with meanness, it means being a limit setting parent is seen as marginal or deviant. I will not waste time in telling you that being “mean” is exactly what you need to be. In fact, if your daughter approves of your technology policy, you’re probably doing something wrong. A sweeping statement, yes, but kids need limits on technology use, period.

Make sure your child does not share her password. Many girls share a password to bond with a friend, but it’s precisely these friends who may steal it. It is all too common for girls to break into each others’ accounts and send out emails, photos or texts pretending to be someone else. Advise your daughter to treat her password like a credit card; in other words, there are some valuable things we do not share with our closest friends, no matter how much we love them.

Tell her there is no such thing as privacy online. It doesn’t matter if you only wrote it in an email, or the person promised not to share it. Once something is electronic, it can be forwarded and shared endlessly. Imagine a pillowcase filled with the feathers at the top of the Empire State Building. If you cut open the pillow and ran down to the street, you could collect some of the feathers, but never all. Carried along by the wind, cars and shuffling feet, they would disappear to places unknown. The same is true when your words or image are put online. Once something begins to get forwarded, it becomes like those feathers. It’s gone.

Do not fight with your friends online. Tell your daughter that fighting online can seem like a good idea when you think about it, but when you actually try it, it gets messy quickly. Technology is never a substitute for honest, real communication. As hard as it feels to talk to someone face-to-face or voice-to-voice, this is the best and only way to settle conflicts with respect and maturity. When you’re not looking at someone, you stop thinking about her feelings. When we do not make eye contact, we are less sensitive to hurting the other person and more focused on venting our own emotions. We are likely to say things we don’t mean. We get puffed up with false confidence that quickly evaporates and leaves us with a mess.

How can teachers, educators, and administrators help mitigate cyberbullying?

In the 21st century, it is impossible to keep students safe at school without holding them responsible for cyberbullying. The vast majority of schools decline to intervene in these episodes because they occur off school grounds. Yet anyone who has spent five minutes in a school knows that what happens off campus comes back into the school the next day, disrupting the community. Conflicts intensify, students can’t focus and school counselors and administrators are brought in to clean up the mess. Without the ability to hold students responsible for their actions, a vacuum is created where students can act out against each other without deterrent.

While there are important legal issues of free speech to consider here, it is no longer acceptable to argue that anti-bullying policy remain squarely within the school’s gates. Cyberbullying is a game changer; it literally shatters the walls between school and home. There is no escape. Increasingly, schools are arguing that students must be held accountable for what happens off campus because of the school resources required to manage the aftereffects of cyberbullying. This is the right direction for schools to be heading.