How to Deal With Teenage Trolls

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: Sometimes, lessons don't go as planned. When Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--realized a group of boys were copying offensive language and behavior they saw online, she knew it was time to try something new. Here, she explains how she and her colleagues are handling the situation.


I work at an international school in Shanghai. Located all over the world, these independent schools are set up to educate students who are living away from their home country. Many expats are working on two- to five-year contracts, so these schools are set up to align with the curriculum of specific countries so that the kids who move overseas with their parents don't miss a beat.


With 1,700 students, my school is a typical American school in many ways. But as a health teacher, I've always been struck by one big difference between my students back home and the ones I work with here: Bullying hasn't really been an issue. Normally as a middle school health teacher, it would take up a significant part of my curriculum, as bullying is a serious issue that can negatively impact all aspects of a student's health. But thankfully, we haven't had to worry about it here before.


After being here for several years, I have a few theories as to why that might be. First of all, our student population is diverse. Kids aren't usually making fun of people for being different, because in some way, they all are. More importantly though, I think it comes down to empathy. They've all been the "new kid" recently (and in a completely different country!), so they've had to adapt fast, and they know what it feels like to be left out. These higher levels of empathy have always made me so proud of my students, and I brag about their inclusive and open attitudes to anyone who'll listen.


Which is why what's been happening over the last 6 months has really come as a shock.


We've got a growing group of seventh grade boys who have begun emulating some of the behaviors of the internet trolls they watch on YouTube, using negative and offensive language they find on memes and in their favorite multiplayer video games. Whether it's for attention, or the fact that they just don't know any better, their language has become more and more offensive, and they seem to care less and less.


To help encourage a return to empathy, I had planned on having them read Would You Stand Up to Hate? article from this month's Choices, followed up with the CULTURE OF KINDNESS worksheet and activity. But this group of students needs more than just an activity in advisory class, so our team decided to do something a bit drastic: differentiated SEL (social and emotional learning).


When students are struggling with academics, we differentiate by giving them extra time, meeting with them in small groups and giving them even more direct instruction. After much discussion, it was decided that our counselor was going to pull this group of boys out during our advisory's SEL time for more in-depth discussions and activities. The hope is that after a few of these sessions--which they can opt out of for a parent meeting instead--these boys will begin to recognize what they truly value, and how making a positive impact can feel so much better than this trolling behavior in the long-term.


In the meanwhile, all of our other advisory students--who up until this point have been bystanders to this negative behavior by their peers--have read and reflected on the Choices article. They now recognize what they can do to stand up to hate and have begun combatting the issue with some positive memes of their own. One of the students told me, "We can make a choice about whether or not we want to look at the negative memes online, but if we put these positive ones up on the walls of the school, people have to look at them whether they like it or not." Fair enough.


Here are a few examples of their work:




After the boys are done with their small group sessions, they'll rejoin the rest of their advisory group and help lead them in creating more sustainable campaigns for our CULTURE OF KINDNESS activity. I've asked our counselor to write down the steps he takes with these boys, along with some reflections for other teachers and counselors. Hopefully he'll have some success and some good tips to share... as I'm afraid we're not the only school struggling with a bad case of the trolls.


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