Have kids become more cruel?

A New Hampshire Family Life and Family Policy specialist who is an expert on bullying says that kids today are meaner than ever before-and inattentive parents coupled with a lack of certain values may be to blame.

"This generation that's coming up, the generation in school right now ... they are the meanest generation of kids that we've ever had, and they have more ways to be mean to each other than any other generation," Malcolm Smith, a member of the New Hampshire Legislative Task Force on Work and Family and an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, told a crowd at Portsmouth High School recently.

Kids who bully repeatedly are missing certain basic values, The Portsmouth Herald quotes him as saying. Things like manners, civility, and kindness. And the problem has been fostered, Smith said, by a lack of parental supervision.

"It's about supervising and being around. As a parent, that's really important," he said, telling parents that they can help fight bullying by teaching values like respect, compassion, and generosity, and encouraging kids to have realistic expectations of other people.

But is it really that simple? I don't think so.

"It's important to acknowledge that though your child may have bullied someone, your child doesn't automatically become a bully at that point,'' says Peggy Moss, the author of anti-bullying books "Say Something'' and "One of Us.'' "It's really important to acknowledge that your child may have been a target yesterday, will be a bystander another day, and is going to be a bully one day-and we have all played all of those roles.''

While some repeat bullies do have what Smith describes as a "social learning" deficit, what bullying comes down to is an imbalance of power. To say that bullies are simply missing basic values underestimates what kids experience in this day and age.

"Kids know a lot about the framework in which they operate, and I think we make a mistake when we pull kids out of that framework and don't acknowledge what's happening,'' Moss, the mother of 12- and 9-year-old girls, says. Kids understand what's considered "normal'' by their friends-and what will happen if they break the peer-enforced rules.

Peer pressure can also lead a child who is not a bully to start acting like one, says Dr. Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College and the mother of three boys. "Nowadays, children who are popular and generally well liked are often actually encouraged or rewarded for being a little bit mean to their peers, for putting some kids down,'' she points out. This is especially true among girls, where the "mean girl" behavior-bullying-is much more likely to be psychological than physical. "We know today that most of the psychological bullying which goes on-the lion's share-occurs between children who are popular or socially successful and victims who are less so," Englander explains. "That's the power imbalance.''

Are kids meaner in this day age than they were a generation ago? Or have we grown into a more callous society? It's hard to tell, but one thing is certain: Kids today have many more ways to express meanness than they did just a couple of decades ago. Back in the 1980s, a mean message might appear plastered on the lockers, but it now it can easily end up in everyone's in-box. You couldn't harass someone via Facebook a generation ago, or humiliate them with viral videos. You couldn't instantly forward an inappropriate picture-or worse, create one by by digitally fusing other snapshots together. And a text message was a note that got passed around the classroom, not one that got zapped around the country.

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