Youth culture scholars Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick have a thought-provoking op-ed in today’s New York Times, one that challenges a lot of the assumptions teachers and parents bring to bullying discussions.

High school students, they’ve found, rarely use the word bullying to describe even the most obvious examples of such behavior. Instead, they — particularly girls — dismiss it as “drama.”

Dismissing a conflict that’s really hurting their feelings as drama lets teenagers demonstrate that they don’t care about such petty concerns. They can save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as desperate for attention. Or, if they’re the instigators, the word drama lets teenagers feel that they’re participating in something innocuous or even funny, rather than having to admit that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Drama allows them to distance themselves from painful situations.

Adults want to help teenagers recognize the hurt that is taking place, which often means owning up to victimhood. But this can have serious consequences. To recognize oneself as a victim — or perpetrator — requires serious emotional, psychological and social support, an infrastructure unavailable to many teenagers. And when teenagers like Jamey do ask for help, they’re often let down.

No student wants to be identified as a victim. And so…

Antibullying efforts cannot be successful if they make teenagers feel victimized without providing them the support to go from a position of victimization to one of empowerment. When teenagers acknowledge that they’re being bullied, adults need to provide programs similar to those that help victims of abuse. And they must recognize that emotional recovery is a long and difficult process.

Boyd and Marwick highlight a fundamental contradiction in anti-bullying campaigns. Adult rhetoric treats bullying as serious business, but adults in positions of power in such environments rarely exercise that power in ways that back up that rhetoric.

Adults: think back to the worst example of bullying you experienced or witnessed in high school. Now imagine that behavior taking place in a workplace, an adult social setting, a college classroom. Imagine how it would be addressed in such a context. The gap between what you imagine and what you saw in high school is the gap between society’s rhetoric on bullying and students’ reality. And in most cases that gap is vast.