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This post is adapted and expanded from one that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 5, 2012

by Larry Magid

There has been a lot of work over the past few years to combat online and offline bullying. Olweus Bullying Prevention Program has been providing great resources for years. The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network has helped raise awareness around bullying, and the White House last year hosted an anti-bullying ummit attended, by both the President and the First Lady.

But Michele Obama isn’t the only famous “lady” working to combat bullying. At Harvard University, Lady Gaga last week launched a foundation to encourage kindness, empower youth and inspire bravery.

Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, launched the Born This Way Foundation with help from Oprah Winfrey, who conducted one of her TV-style interviews with Gaga.

It would be easy to dismiss Lady Gaga as yet another celebrity embracing a cause, — after all combating bullying has become quite popular lately. But after watching her dive deeply into the issues, it’s clear that she brings a lot more to the party than just her fame, influence and wealth. She knows what it means to be different and to be ridiculed by peers. Before she became a superstar, she was a geeky teenaged musician amongst a peer group who thought her odd and out-of-place. When she first started speaking publicly about bullying last year some of her messaging was out of touch with recommendations of many experts. But, as I explain later, she’s now paying attention to the research.

To her credit, Oprah was upbeat and positive and avoided some of the fear messages that she sometimes used on her syndicated TV show to punctuate a point. Fear and exaggeration almost never inspire people to make lasting or meaningful changes and, as Lady Gaga knows from her own fans, most kids don’t bully. She may call her young fans “little monsters,” but it’s a term of endearment. She knows that they’re mostly great kids.

The launch was less about bullying and more about empowering young people to be kind and brave and to support each other.

Not blaming tech

I was pleased that in addition to refraining from exaggerating the prevalence of bullying or overdramatizing the results, no one perpetuated the myth that technology is severely endangering young people. Gaga commented that “people think that cyberbullying is like the major thing that’s happening right now and truthfully it’s really not. It’s the most visible because you can copy and past something and view it. But the worst bullying that you can experience is face to face on the street, in school.”

She’s right. A recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that in-person bullying is more common than any form of cyberbullying. Besides, cyberbullying is simply bullying that takes place on phones and online. Research shows that kids who are cyberbullied are often bullied by the same kids at school. Technology is no longer something special — it’s woven into the fabric of young people’s lives, so it’s pretty much impossible to separate “cyber’ bullying from school-based aggression and meanness.

She brought a village

Also on stage were the mind-body healing guru Deepack Chopra, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen G. Sebelius, University of Nebraska Psychology Professor Susan Swearer , high school student Alyssa Rodemeyer, reporter and gay parent David Burtka and Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, who all interviewed Lady Gaga in what amounted to a mock trial, which was fitting in that it took place in an auditorium that reminded me of the classroom from the movie “Paper Chase.”

The launch followed a day-long symposium at the Harvard Law School, where about 90 of the world’s best minds on bullying, youth risk, media and education addressed a variety of issues. I participated in the session on school culture and climate. There were also sessions on law and policy, evaluation and assessment, classroom-based curricula and media campaigns.

My co-director Anne Collier co-led a session on peer driven initiatives that featured young people whose voices are too often left out of these discussions. Each of the working groups made specific recommendations, including action items, for the foundation to consider.  Experts working with the Berkman Center put together some useful working papers ahead of the launch to provide an overview on bullying and meanness along with some excellent tips. Harvard also hosted a youth conference were Lady Gaga made an appearance.

It helps that Lady Gaga is paying attention to experts, including  danah boyd of Microsoft Research who provided her team with research materials in advance of the launch. Boyd and Berkman Center co-director John Palfrey, serve as advisers to Gaga’s foundation.

Minor quibbles

I do have a couple of minor quibbles. I disagreed with her response to Swearer, who said educators need to get involved in combating bullying. “I don’t think that works,” responded Lady Gaga, adding “I don’t think teachers give a shit a lot of the time.” She thinks the solution is youth intervention and she’s partially right. But it really does take a village, and that village must includes kids along with teachers, parents, law enforcement, counselors, the media, politicians and everyone else.

I also thought Lady Gaga was a naïve when she said, “I believe it will be quite easy to change the world,”  but it was a sweet thought when she elaborated that if everyone were nice to others, it would happen over time. Yet I was impressed by most of what she had to say, including, “We have to work from the ground up and create a climate and an environment in schools where someone that feels self conscious has someone walk up to them in the middle of class and say ‘I really like your essay’. Little acts of kindness, these are the things that will change culture.”

Not looking to the law

And I agree with Lady Gaga that passing new laws won’t solve the problem. If a law would work, she said, “I’d be chained naked to a fence somewhere trying to pass it.” I, too, would support a law if I ever found one that could truly make a difference. But I’d keep my clothes on.

For more

From Born This Way to Move This Way: A new foundation

Stephen Carrick-Davies’ Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation: Are We Born To Be Brave?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s Born to Not Get Bullied – based on an interview with Gaga

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