“She didn’t deny it—she just sat there and had that ‘What did I do?’ look,” Tori said. “You know how when you’re really mad and your face starts to get a sort of hot feeling? I knew I had to walk out of the room.”
Riley Duquette, a freshman, knows that feeling. While he described the school environment as generally a friendly place to be, he’s occasionally been subjected to teasing because of his acne. “They call me ‘Pizza Face,’” he said.
But he is able to shrug it off in part because he knows his skin will clear up as he gets older. Immaturity might not be so easily conquered, especially for “people who have no chill,” as Riley described it—teen-speak for an inability to respond appropriately in tense situations, or to shrug off the small stuff.
“Nobody knows how to laugh at themselves,” said Riley, 14. “They only know how to laugh at other people.”
Social skirmishes are familiar to anyone who’s been through adolescence. But what’s different now, experts say, is the near-constant drumbeat of digital communication. Meredith Smith, a Pittsfield junior, shared one recent run-in: As she walked into class, a text message popped up on her phone. It was her friend, standing a few feet from her in the hallway, asking why Meredith hadn’t waved when she passed.
“I can’t even,” Smith said. “No one can do in-person anymore.”
And that’s a relatively benign exchange. Online, “everybody’s meaner,” said one Pittsfield student, who deleted social-media apps from her phone after extensive harassment by schoolmates. “Girls get called ‘whores.’ People say things they wouldn’t say to your face.”
But digital bonds needn’t always be negative. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found more than 80 percent of teens said social media “makes them feel more connected to information about their friends’ lives” while 70 percent “feel better connected to their friends’ feelings.” And 68 percent of teen social-media users said they’ve “had people on the platforms supporting them through tough or challenging times.”
So how do young people discriminate between healthy interactions and harmful ones? Who’s responsible for teaching those skills? While parental and family influence can’t be understated, increasingly, educators say, it’s falling to schools to provide those lessons to students.
Given how easily the interpersonal drama can turn into a distraction from learning, educators have little choice but to embrace that responsibility, said John Freeman, the superintendent of Pittsfield Schools. While noting it only takes a handful of kids to produce a big change in a small school’s statistics, Freeman said he’s paying attention to the slide in the “respect” numbers on the campus-climate survey.
“That’s not the culture and community we’re trying to encourage here,” Freeman said. “We want to prepare kids to be thoughtful, contributive members of their communities, not just at school but when they go out into the world. That’s what adult life is about.”