Why has bullying become such a pressing phenomenon today? How can we think about the issue and approach it biblically? Sean interviews youth culture expert Jonathan McKee about his new book The Bullying Breakthrough. Together, they reflect theologically on the bullying phenomenon (and especially cyberbullying), discuss what it reveals about our culture, and offer some practical ways caring adults can respond.

More About Our Guest

Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices. With over 20 years youth ministry experience, Jonathan speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. Jonathan, his wife, Lori, and their three kids live in California.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically. Conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host Sean McDowell, Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Today we're joined by a friend of mine, the author of a really unique new book that covers a topic we have not covered yet on this podcast. Jonathan McKee is the President of The Source for Youth Ministry and to be honest really my go to person when I want to know what's going on in the world of culture, in particular as it effects young people. Jonathan McKee is author of a book, The Bullying Breakthrough, which we're going to talk about today. Jonathan, thanks for joining us.

Jonathan McKee: Hey man, thanks for having me. My privilege honestly.

Sean McDowell: Besides being a youth culture expert, you pump out books all the time. I don't know how you do it. Tell me the story of why you wrote The Bullying Breakthrough in particular.

Jonathan McKee: Yes, when it comes to this topic of kids who are bullied and kids are on campus observing that and what to do and how do we respond to that as loving parents, teachers. It's a topic close to my heart, because I picked on a ton as a kid. I wasn't a stud like you Sean.

Sean McDowell: Oh gosh.

Jonathan McKee: My son ended up being bullied a bunch. It's kind of really close to home. It's interesting how in the youth ministry world sometimes we see through the lens in which we know so well, through our own lens and I go at this one campus near my house, usually once a week. I attended this school assembly thing that was kind of cool, that was talking about self-esteem, bullying and how we treat others. It was interesting, this amazing event they did, but during one exercise they did a thing where it was like, everyone grab a partner. You got a partner? Okay, now with your partner, and the guy who was running it was a studly guy, who was kind of this jock, whatever. It was interesting how me through my lens, the first thing I thought, when he said grab a partner, is oh, oh, this is the part I hated and I looked and I started to see these, I saw this one kid, who was this kind of little homely looking kid. Immediately on grab a partner he was kind of looking around and nobody was choosing him. He kind of like started to just duck and just try to find a corner. Sure enough this guy goes on with the exercise and this kid never found a partner.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Jonathan McKee: I don't think the guy leading it ever even fathomed that, because he had never experienced that, but for those of us who have experienced being the last kid picked for basketball or the one that they're arguing, you get him. No you get him or whatever.

Sean McDowell: Right, right.

Jonathan McKee: Yes, it's honestly been that bad. It's like we kind of spot that and I like having diverse people that work with young people on my team actually, because people spot different things. I have somebody who kind of struggled with drugs and stuff. He's like oh man that guy is high right now. I'm like really? I didn't even know. He spots that stuff. It's one of those things where I endured a bunch of that. I think God can use stuff like that. He can use our past so we can help people in the present.

Sean McDowell: Let's start kind of with the 30,000 foot view. I have a theory about this and you can tell me if I'm crazy if there's something to it, but when I see the focus and emphasis on bullying. Say the past, I don't know five, ten years or so. I wonder why this issue now? I think obviously social media plays a part in this.

Jonathan McKee: Yes.

Sean McDowell: I also kind of think if we are culture and the study shows there more loneliness, more depression, more broken relationships, if we don't know how to love people. One natural response for so many people is to bully instead. It seems to me part of this bullying epidemic is just really illustrating how deep broken our culture actually is.

Jonathan McKee: Yes, no, I think you're spot on, because it's one of those things, of course it's like anything. It's messy. You can't just say, it's just the phone. It's just social media. It's just the state of kid's self-esteem. The Center For Disease Control defines bullying as basically, they've got this long definition and I like to see it as three check boxes. There's these three things that happen. One it's this aggressive behavior by someone towards someone else. Two it's repeated and three it's this power imbalance. It's this I'm trying to make myself feel better by lifting myself up, by lowering you. When you see these aggressive, repeated power attacks, yes in a society where several things are happening. Again this is this messy, it goes everywhere. It goes into the bedroom. It goes everywhere. This is because of social media and phones, but also self-esteem is at an all time low, so people are feeling lower about themselves. They're more desperate to lift themselves up. Also we just live in a world right now where people don't understand a lot of conflict resolution. You see young people, I mean what's conflict resolution for them? Even good guys like Drake, when he's not singing God's Plan, he's talking about, oh you going to talk this way about me, well and he'll let, so all our pop music kind of like dissing on each other. Oh yes, you said this, well guess what? It's funny to see how the world is watching how Kanye and Drake are going back and forth on Twitter. Well of course we don't know how to resolve conflict. These are our role models today, so all this is kind of creating this arena in which bullies are kind of thinking okay, well this is how I make myself feel better, so it's a tough situation.

Sean McDowell: Before we kind of get into some of the particulars, can you give me maybe some like theological hooks or insights for even approaching the topic of bullying. How does scripture weigh into this?

Jonathan McKee: Well you know again, what we've just been talking about is this is all about me and self and I've got to feel better and that's just obviously so contrary to all of scripture. You think of the Beatitudes. Jesus kind of flipped everything on its head with the Beatitudes, it's talking about no, no here's what leadership is. It's serving others and it's compassion. It's humility, meekness. These are not things you see on a junior high campus. My favorite is probably Philippians Two, just because Paul just said it so well there, when he talked about do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Any of us who work with young people or have our own junior high kids, know that when you're walking with a middle school kid or a high school kid even to the car, the first things that guys will yell is "shotgun." You've never heard a guy yell "shotgun for you. No you first. No let me get the door." It doesn't happen. We're just kind of selfish creatures and in this society even more so. At the same time again this is messy, we've got a generation who really cares and who's just so compassionate. They want to make an impact and so it's neat how we can kind of when we show them the truth of God's word and expose it to them and they start to read, hey wow I could be like Jesus. I could do this. This is what it looks like. It's not thinking of myself first, but thinking of others first and here's some ways to do that. That's where we need to start this dialogue with the bystanders of this world and with the bullies of this world is hey look at, if there's somebody, over there that's hurting you can make a difference. You can actually save their life by doing something as simple as being a friend.

Sean McDowell: How prevalent is bullying today?

Jonathan McKee: Well it's all over the place and it's funny because you have so many different people doing studies. I think Stop Bullying which is a government study. Stopbullying.gov actually said 70% of young people have seen bullying in their schools and the interesting thing is 70% of school staffs have seen it. 62% have witnessed it two or more times in the last month and 41% witnessed bullying once a week or more. It's something you see a lot. I was on campus this morning. I was on campus last week. I see kids being kind of shunned and quick little comments to a kid. Again does that meet that definition of the three check boxes, aggressive, repeated. Unless I'm there 24/7 seeing it, I don't know, but I've definitely seen a lot of that mean spirited stuff which leaves one kid out. I saw this kid by himself over with a soccer ball just kicking it against this backstop by himself, kind of this lonely kid while the other kids were all ignoring him. We definitely see a ton of this out there and of course cyber bullying has taken it to a brand new level.

Sean McDowell: I want to go to the direction of cyber bullying, but let me ask a couple questions first. You interviewed people for this which I found really helpful, so it wasn't just kind of ideas and research. You really talked to people in three groups. The bullies, bullied and the bystander. Can you explain what you mean by those groups and what you discovered talking to each of them?

Jonathan McKee: Yes, yes. We can all read all these studies on it and sure I could even share my personal stories, but I also wanted to just really get into the minds of each of these groups, because I feel like when you walk on any campus like I was today. I go out there and you're going to see three types of kids. You're going to see the bully. You're going to see the bullied, but then there's that other group that sometimes is ignored and that's the bystander and that's an interesting group, because as I talked to young people and I started to figure out which category they fit into. The bystander was really torn, because the bully is kind of obvious. You see them checking the three boxes so to speak. They're out there aggressively, repeatedly, trying to lift themselves up by lowering others. You see the kids that are definitely, you'd say man this kid is definitely being bullied, but the bystanders got that tough situation where you see some girls making fun of another girl, because of the clothes she wears, because of something she did and you're torn, because you're standing there and you're like okay I don't want to join in, because I know that would be bad. Do I just say nothing or what do I say? Do I stay up and say hey you leave her alone, because then they'll probably start making fun of me and I found that most of them really struggled with knowing what that looks like to actually stand up and do something, versus just standing by. That's why you probably thought that my chapter on bystanders, here's a book that's primarily to caring adults to principals, teachers, youth workers, parents. I said here's the chapter you need to read with your kid, the bystander chapter. This is where we can talk with our kids about how do we respond when we see this situation.

Sean McDowell: How is bullying different today than it has been in the past?

Jonathan McKee: Well it's different because its arm reaches to new places. That's our perfect segue way to cyber bullying, because it's just, cyber bullying is this new level of hurt. These victims are the ones that are most likely to commit suicide. As a matter of fact, they're the ones that bullying victims are twice as likely to commit suicide as a kid who's not. Cyber bullying victims are three times as likely and the reason why is it makes sense, is because it used to be that, you and I when we went home. If we had a rough day, if we were teased, if we were mocked, for many of use we had a safe place we had a safe place we could retreat to. When that bell rang at 2:46 p.m. and I escaped, I was able to go home to a place where I was pretty safe, at least until 7:40 the next morning when I re-entered that world where the bullying takes place. Today there is no escape, because as soon as that bell rings at 2:46 kids enter a whole new world and it's a world where mockers and intimidators thrive. It's this world of social media and texting and everything that we now carry in our pocket, because we're not out of reach. You and I know, we've read all the studies. Most parents sadly allow these devices into kid's bedrooms at night, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatric National Sleep Foundation, every expert out there is saying, hey you know what? At nighttime pull those devices out of the bedroom, but most of the devices go into the bedrooms at night. At 10:00 at night, at midnight, at 1:00 a.m. people are throwing hate still, so someone's bedroom isn't even safe anymore. That's the biggest thing we've seen really in the last six years, because it wasn't until 2012, which America crossed that 50% mark for carrying SmartPhones in their pocket and now according to CommonSenseMedia's newest study 89% of 12-17 year-olds actually have SmartPhones, 97% on social media. That's huge, so yes, the hate is now going through every WiFi, going through every cable into the safety of our bedroom.

Sean McDowell: Is that why people who are cyber bullied are more likely to commit suicide and have deeper effects in their life than people who are bullied in person? Is that the heart of it?

Jonathan McKee: I think so. My personal theory on that is that word travels so much faster and people have the opportunity to be so much more creatively mean. If you read my book you hear my story of how in middle school I had it so rough that kids actually made t-shirts and they drew a caricature of my face on the front of the t-shirt and they put a gun scope on it and they started the Kill Jon Club, the KGC.

Sean McDowell: Oh man.

Jonathan McKee: They made picture of my big teeth, because I had these huge buckteeth. As a matter of fact if you flip over the cover of my book, you see the picture of fourth grade Jonathan right there with the huge buckteeth. Just so people kind of got a glimpse of okay, this is a guy who's been there. Well the crazy thing is today, that was so mean. They drew a picture of my face. Well now on social media people can be so creative, because they take memes and these funny things and instantly the whole school has it, I mean instantly the worse caricatures are now spread throughout the entire school and as a matter of fact, the school that I was on this morning. I asked the Vice Principal, she's the one who handles all the discipline how that affected her and she told me the same story that I almost hear at every school, because it happened literally on every campus. Every campus has one of these stories of boyfriend and girlfriend breakup and it either was because boyfriend had asked girl to send a sexy pic, girl usually gives in. Usually through Snapchat, thinking oh it'll disappear. The guy screenshots it and what's the girl going to do when she sees the thing that comes up that says, you're picture has been screen shotted. What's she going to do? Tell her parents? Hey I sent a nude picture to my boyfriend and he screenshot it. You know?

Sean McDowell: Right, right.

Jonathan McKee: You can't do anything, you know. Eventually when they break up what usually ends up happening is the guy will very often send the picture sometimes to the entire school, to every one of his friends.

Sean McDowell: Golly.

Jonathan McKee: Look at what a slut she is, you know this and that. The school that I was at this morning, they had a situation where these two were mad at each other and the guy took a nude pic that wasn't even of her, but it was from the neck down and sent it and said it was her. It didn't even matter that it wasn't her, because of course the whole school, once you say it is. Very often, this is where se see suicide attempt, bare minimum we see kids switching schools, because they just can't face this stuff day after day. Yes, it's come to a new level and it's a new level of hurt for sure.

Sean McDowell: You make the point that the signs of bullying whether someone is bullying or being bullied are actually pretty obvious if anyone cares enough to really notice and pay attention. What are some of the signs that adults or even other students could look for?

Jonathan McKee: You know, I'm so glad you said that anybody who takes the time or cares to notice, because that's really the key. Sometimes we just aren't looking for it and that's why I love to have people on my team who have maybe experienced a little more, because sometimes they're the one who kind of know what to look for and they can kind of see, or they're at least making an effort, because they're like ahh, here's one of those spots where somebody is going to get mocked or this is a great opportunity for someone looking for a partner. They're not going to find that partner. We really have to be proactive in looking for it, because sometimes you see these "chaperones" on campus who honestly are just playing with a cool kid. They're tossing a football back and forth and they just honestly don't have a clue of what's going on. Story after story and I shared so many of them in the book of people I interviewed where I constantly kept hearing, my teacher didn't have a clue. The yard duty didn't have a clue. I told the principal and he's like no, no, this is a good kid and that brings up an interesting point and I know you asked me. I'm sorry, I'm the kind of tangents. You asked me what are the signs? I'll get there, I promise, because it's interesting because sometimes and I'm going to confess this with my own story here. Sometimes the kid who's bullied is an awkward kid, because when you've been shunned this much, something happened to me as a kid where I became skeptical of others. I became bitter. I became isolated and when that happens, you don't have as good of social skills and you're kind of awkward and you say dumb things. It's a downward spiral. It makes things worse and because of that very often one thing that we don't think about and something I touched on in the book. It's sometimes easier for us to connect with the cool kids and the socially proficient kids, where the social awkward kids sometimes say dumb things. You're just kind of like, well that kids frankly irritating. Sometimes those kids get kind of left out and we don't notice them, but yes we as loving patients, we as teachers, we as principals and as a school administration need to, to answer your question notice some of these signs. Of which the biggest that we can recognize in our kids are probably low self-esteem. Now that's tough, because I know a lot of people would be like Jonathan, you just said that we are experiencing record levels of self-esteem.

Sean McDowell: Yes.

Jonathan McKee: Because we live in a world right now where every kid is carrying around a little barometer of self-esteem in their pocket. They've got this device that tells them exactly how many friends they have and exactly how popular each of their posts went or didn't go. You can always find somebody who's posts are doing way better than yours, so yes, self-esteem is super low. I think particularly if you're a parent and you start to notice maybe your kid verbalizing some of these insecurities more and more and they're saying things. It might be a mom who's, hey why don't you wear these shorts to a daughter and no, I look fat in those. Where did she hear that? You know? Now yes this could be because she follows every Kardashian and Jenner and beautiful person out there who's perfect and she realizes I don't have the perfect thigh gap and all the stuff that's out there. Sometimes they hear this stuff and if all of a sudden you notice this change in them, where all of a sudden they're verbalizing insecurities, what was that? Do you see a change in friend groups. Hey do you want to hang out with Mattie? Do you hang out with Brian? Oh no, I don't really hang out with Brian anymore. Look for these. Do you see them avoiding school? Declining grades. If you attend their sports or you attend their, do you ever hear some teasing from others? I remember going to school with my son at this event. I started to hear some stuff. Of course my ears are perfect for that kind of stuff.

Sean McDowell: Yes.

Jonathan McKee: My wife a cheerleader, didn't hear it at all. She's like what?

Sean McDowell: Oh.

Jonathan McKee: No, no, look at what that kid just did over there and then she was tuned into it immediately, but this is the kind of stuff where and again, don't freak out. You hear something like hey if you see a change in eating habits, your kid might be being bullied. Well don't freak out. Don't overreact. If your son, maybe your son just ate an entire bag of Doritos on the way home from school and that's why he's not eating his carrots that you laid out for him. Don't freak out, but if you start to notice several of these things, then that's when we just need to tune in and pay attention and that's where we as parents really need to step up and the key thing we can do more than anything else is not freak out, because every single kid who had been bullied that I interviewed. The thing they kept saying is I didn't want to tell anybody, because I knew it would only get worse. I knew they'd only freak out, because they knew that mom would be like what? I'm going to call his parents right now, you know.

Sean McDowell: Right, right.

Jonathan McKee: I heard story after story of these kids who would literally come out of the principal's office, where the principal is like okay, are you friends now? All right, shake hands and they'd walk out. The other kid would be like all right, you think that was smart huh, or we're going to get you later.

Sean McDowell: Right.

Jonathan McKee: I mean literally in the bathroom right afterwards and so most kids are like don't want to share, because we become the fixer. We want to fix it right then and honestly we need to start thinking about every professional counselor out there. They don't start with a fix, they start with empathy. They start with listening and our kid who's alone, who's hurting, who feels like nobody understands, nobody cares. They don't need a fix right then and eventually we can get to it. There's things we can do, but the first thing we need to do is just listen and say, wow, I'm so glad you told me. Thank you for sharing. You must have felt so alone and just give them a friend. Give them someone who listens and understands. That's what we need to do more than anything else. That's where it starts.

Sean McDowell: That's such good advice and it's biblical, like Romans 12:15 talks about be happy with those who are happy and be sad with those who are sad. Showing empathy is a Christian response to all kinds of pain in particular to bullying. That's wonderful advice. Let me ask you a question that comes up in the media a lot, is what's the connection between school shootings and bullying?

Jonathan McKee: Yes, there's a lot of debate about this and I will use the word messy again, because if you were to say school shooting is because of bullying, as a guy who's spent literally over 100 hours studying this stuff and experienced it and as a kid who wanted to take a gun to school and shoot three kids in the face.

Sean McDowell: Wow, wow.

Jonathan McKee: I mean I tell you man, if I had access to a gun back then, by God's grace I didn't. Bullying is definitely a significant contributing factor, but it's not the only factor. Most of the studies out there will talk about how bullying is one of those contributing factors, but mental illness very often is and a home life, but you see these exceptions out there. Columbine obviously is one that a lot of people are familiar with and when you look at something like Columbine where you have Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who I spent a lot of time studying in that one book I wrote about a school shooting. I really was trying to get into the mind. Well Eric Harris I think had some mental illness. I think he had some issues. I think he also had some home life issues and he definitely had bullying because you could actually go online and Google Columbine Bullying on video and you can see the white hats, the jocks walking around that campus. I have a friend who was a youth pastor in Columbine during it and he walks about, he knew some of those kids and I won't mention some of the names.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Jonathan McKee: I know the names of some of the kids and that's why Klebold and Harris walked in, they're like anybody with a white hat stand up. That's what they said. They were after the white hats. They were after these bullies. I'm almost insulted when I hear some of these experts who haven't been bullied, who don't know what it's like, when they say no it wasn't that, it was mental illness. I've got two words for you. Dylan Klebold.

Sean McDowell: Dylan.

Jonathan McKee: Yes, that's Eric Harris's friend, one of the Columbine shooters and guess what? He wasn't mentally ill. He went shopping for colleges with his parents the weekend before. Had a great home life. Stable kid. Everybody who knew him said that, but bullied significantly and made friends with this kid Eric Harris. It's interesting how much you see this and we saw kids, the stabbing kid Alex Hribal who brought the knife to school and stabbed, I mean slashed 17 different people. Huge bullying waws a huge factor and I think mental illness was a factor there too, so it's this messy thing, but let me tell you something. When kids had my face on the front of a t-shirt and I sat there and every day a kid walked by, hit me in the back of the neck, knocked my books off the table. I wanted to kill them. I'm just telling you straight up. I was mentally unstable at that point, because I think I would have. I had dreams about it. I still will wake up in a sweat and have this one kid's face and my wife knows the kid's name. She'll be like, oh you're having a and she says his name dream. She knows. I've actually gone to a little bit counseling.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Jonathan McKee: Some of this has opened up. It's affected my marriage. It's affected my relationship with others. My skepticism with others. It's a significant factor in school shootings. We need to pay attention to this, because very often we ignore this and this is one of the repercussions that can happen.

Sean McDowell: Let me close by asking you this question that it didn't surprise me that you brought this up because I know you and your heart in this, but it's a piece that's not often discussed, is you talk about grace. Grace towards those who are bullied, towards bystanders and even towards the bully. Give us some thoughts on what you mean by that?

Jonathan McKee: Yes, you know it's one of those things were again I love to bring not just young people, but all this back to scripture. I love to bring it back to the grace that God's extended to us. I think it's no accident that when Paul lays out in this amazing letter to the people of Phillipi in Philippians Two, where he says that this selfish ambition, being conceited, consider others better than yourself. Do nothing out of selfish ambition and vain conceit, but consider others better than yourself. Do not look out after your own interests but the interests of others. Then he goes on to say, like Christ did. He goes as a matter of fact Christ and he starts going in and talking about what Christ did, because Christ models this. Christ's last act was all this hate towards him and what's he do? He turns around and he lays down his life for them and so this is one of those things where luckily, we are following a savior who modeled this and exemplified this and who went through this and for us we can say, hey you know what? Think about how much this teaching Sermon on the Mount, loving those hard to love. How many times do you say, you know things about like hey it's easy to love someone who's easy, nice to you. How about those who are hard to you? He constantly talked about this. This is one of those things where there's going to be times where we go well I might risk my reputation. I might risk my safety and our response should be, you mean like Christ did? You know honestly this is one of those things where the more we spend time studying Christ, I think our eyes are going to be opened.

Sean McDowell: Jonathan give me a last 30 second just important truth for our listeners.

Jonathan McKee: You know what, I think it's the fact that, I came across this study that showed these kids that were kind of having this downward spiral of being teased and they felt worse about themselves so they treated others worse. Again it just got worse and worse and worse. This study was phenomenal and I cited it in the book. It showed that those students who were experiencing this downward spiral, who had just one friend. Now think about this. One friend made the difference in a kid's life from continuing down that downward spiral or being able to have someone that they could just dialogue with, spend time with. Someone that just made them feel like hey I'm not completely alone in this. It's amazing, because the more I started to look. The more I found that anybody who had just one friend, one friend that made a difference, so my word for especially young people out there is man, you can make an incredible difference by befriending. Not just eating lunch with someone once, but by saying hey I'm going to make a repeated effort to befriend this kid who's hurting.

Sean McDowell: That is such a good last word and I really believe that's the heart of the novel you wrote called Bystanders, because most people aren't strong bullies or just being vigorously bullied, although that happens like you said significantly. Most people fall probably fall into the category of bystanders and you wrote this really creative novel to just help people amidst this bullying culture say, how can I be a friend to at least one person that can make a difference really in many cases of life and death. Jonathan, thanks for coming on. Your book The Bullying Breakthrough is excellent. It's full of stories. It's biblical wisdom. It's really practical. It's research based. I thoroughly enjoyed and commend it to our listeners. I want to personally thank you for all the research you do. I know sometimes it's tireless and it's exhausting, but you're bringing a biblical perspective which is what we're all about there at Biola to one of the most important issues of the day bullying. Thanks so much for coming on and joining us.

Jonathan McKee: Hey thanks for having a Westmont grad.

Sean McDowell: Thanks again man. This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically. Conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Jonathan McKee and to find more episodes go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember think biblically about everything.