Did You Hear? A Story About Gossip
The Book Brigade talks to psychologist Frank Sileo.
Posted Nov 16, 2017
Many young people are the targets of gossip designed to hurt. Unfortunately, the rise of social media has made it easy for kids to construct anonymous conduits for such behavior. That doesn’t make it less harmful. But there are ways to stop it in its tracks, and both adults and children have a role in curbing the spread of malicious gossip among kids.
What led you to write a book on gossip for children?
This book grew from a professional and personal interest in the topic. I work with many young people who are or have been targets of bullying. I receive referrals from children and teens weekly who are being gossiped about online via social media and through texts. This causes them tremendous anxiety and depression. Spreading malicious gossip online is cyberbullying, and it intrigued me clinically. After reviewing the books on the market, I wanted to write a book on gossip to help young kids understand it more concretely. On a personal level, I was a target of malicious gossip as a child. This gossip was spread ear to ear and in what is called a “slam book.” Now, in the age of internet and texting, gossip spreads at a faster rate, and once posted, it is very difficult to delete.
What do children need to know about gossip?
Kids need to know that malicious gossip can be extremely hurtful and is a form of bullying. Gossip can stop with them: Teach kids not to be an audience to gossip. When kids refuse to listen or be an audience to people gossiping, they send the message that gossip isn’t important to them. Some kids spread gossip for attention or power, and a disinterested audience takes that motivation away. Children can say something like, “I don’t like talking about others that way” or simply walk away and not participate in the conversation. It may be very tempting to stay and listen because sometimes gossip can be very interesting, especially if one is bored. But a gossiper can continue gossiping only if people are willing to listen.
Children need to know that if they want their personal things kept private, they should respect the privacy of others. Children need to know to keep their private information private, both in person and (especially) on the Internet and social media platforms. Children need to know that once something is posted online, it is very difficult to delete. Children need to be educated and use good judgment about whom they confide in.
An important caveat to not sharing private information is if they hear an “unsafe” secret, such as if someone is being hurt. Encourage a child to talk with a trusted grown-up about what the next step should be if they hear about something dangerous or inappropriate or are unsure about to help keep a friend or peer safe.
What do the adults in children’s lives need to know about gossip?
Gossip also stops with you! Even adults can feel the urge to gossip or “dish” with friends, co-workers, significant others, and other parents. We live in a reality-television culture where we glorify backstabbing and cruel interactions. Incivility in America is at an all-time high. When this behavior is accepted, we are directly modeling tolerance for cruel actions, including gossip. Children need to learn appropriate treatment of others, no matter whether it’s in-person or on social media and other technology.
Adults need to set the example. We have to be aware of what we say and do in front of our children. We also need to be careful of our posts on social media, particularly when children are old enough to see them. When we find our children speaking harmful gossip about others, we need to address it right away.
We have to teach kids empathy. When you talk with your children, ask them, “Would you want people to know private stuff about you?” “How will the person feel if others know their private information?” “Are you being a trustworthy friend?” And “What do you get out of telling private things about others?” When you explore these questions with your child, you can help them to be more sensitive to the feelings of others, which makes it easier to decide the right thing to do.
There is a fair amount of research suggesting that, among adults, at least, gossip is a kind of glue of civilization. What about among kids?
I am not familiar with any research on this for children. It should be noted, gossip is not always harmful. It can be viewed as a way of sharing information and staying connected with other people’s lives. For example, asking “How is Jason doing after his bicycle accident?” might be considered gossip, but there is no malicious intent to talk about a person in a negative way. Gossip becomes a problem when it is used to harm others, whether intentionally or not. When we tell stories that may not be true, reveal information that is meant to be kept private, or say hurtful things about others, we are spreading gossip in a harmful way. There is also always the danger that gossip that starts small and seems innocent can grow into something problematic, harmful, or untrue as in the game of "telephone."
We do know that kids gossip for a variety of reasons. These reasons can include, but not limited to: 1) To feel better than others, 2) To get attention, 3) To feel included, 4) To be in control or gain popularity, and 5) To overcome boredom.
A study from the Cyberbullying Research Center found that girls are most likely to be cyberbullied. Seventy percent of those participating in the study said someone spread gossip about them online.
Is all gossip among kids bad?
Absolutely not. As stated earlier, gossip can be used as a way of sharing helpful, important information and staying connected with others. When there is malicious intent, gossip is harmful.
Do children make a distinction between helpful and hurtful gossip? Should they?
The children I have encountered in my practice don't view it as “gossip” unless someone is saying or spreading something bad about a person. Kids typically are able to tell when someone is saying something hurtful versus helpful about another individual.
When is gossip a bad thing for kids?
Gossip is a bad thing for kids when the intention is to say or spread words that are hurtful, damaging to a child's feelings or reputation. It is a bad thing when they become ostracized from peer groups when they are unwilling to participate in activities they once enjoyed, when they are doing poorly academically where they once did well, when they are acting out in and out of the home. Gossip is most harmful to kids when they are gossiped about and consider hurting themselves by cutting or by committing suicide.
Is there a relationship between gossip and bullying?
Absolutely! When children engage in malicious gossip either ear to ear or via the Internet/social media, it becomes a form of bullying (cyberbullying).
How should anyone go about eliminating gossip among kids?
In homes, schools, extracurricular activities, and sports, a No Gossip rule must be implemented in anti-bullying programs and rules. Some kids (and adults) may not see malicious gossip as bullying.
Do you see attitudes about gossip changing in any positive or negative way?
I see attitudes about gossip changing in a negative direction. Social media is a wonderful medium for connecting and communicating. However, people can hide behind social media sites through creating false profiles and remain anonymous and bully others. Many social media sites have no way of tracking users, so individuals can hurt one another again while remaining anonymous. It seems that public figures gossip and bully all the time on social media platforms. We need more education and support from parents and schools on how to deal with this aspect of bullying. We traditionally think of bullying as a person using words or physical force toward others. The parameters of bullying have broadened tremendously; it's more far-reaching than ever.
Who would most benefit from reading your book?
Although this is a children's picture book, it was written for both children and caregivers to learn and discuss the issue of gossip. I believe a caregiver should read this book alongside a child to foster a discussion about the topic, to answer questions and process any feelings that may arise.
If you had one piece of advice for kids, what would it be?
Kindness begins with you. Be your own person. I love the golden rule: "Treat others the way you wish to be treated." It’s an oldie but a goodie. We need to get back to the basics of civility toward others.
If you had one piece of advice for adults, what would it be?
You are the most influential role model in your children’s life. Take that job very seriously. You are not their friend. They don't need you to be their friend. They need you to teach them, love them, protect them. So if you hear harmful gossip in your carpool ride home, stop that behavior quickly in its tracks. Model kindness, respect, and privacy, to name a few.
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