In the Trenches: Internet Rumors

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,
Last summer, one of our thirteen-year-old campers, whom I will call Adriana (not her real name), was locked in a vicious rivalry with one of the other girls in her group. These are girls who have been coming to camp together for many years. We dealt with it the best we could during camp and thought it was over once camp ended.

Last fall after camp, Adriana began to circulate rumors about her rival, whom I will call Toni, over the Internet. Adriana sent IMs (instant messages) to many of the girls in the group making various serious, damaging, and untrue allegations about Toni. She also sent anonymous e-mails to many other campers in what we call the "Upper Woods," which is where our Teen campers live at camp. Some of these allegations were sexual in nature and all were character assaults. Adriana even sent threats to Toni under a different screen name, thinking she couldn't be discovered this way.

As you can imagine, the effect on Toni was devastating. Some girls in her school who also go to our camp began to shun her. A few boys who heard about the allegations made derisive comments in her presence. When we ultimately traced the e-mails to Adriana, she initially denied sending them. After showing our proof to her parents, she finally admitted to being the source of these hurtful rumors.

While we were appalled at this behavior, we were even more dismayed by Adriana's attitude after she admitted to her Internet harassment. She was hardly contrite and spoke about the situation as if Toni were the offender. When we heard from some of the parents of other girls in the group that their daughters were feeling uneasy about these attacks, we decided not to invite Adriana back to camp.

Bob, this is where we need your help. Adriana began to send us long e-mails about how we were ruining her life, how she waits all year for camp and how important she is to the group (as she said in one of her e-mails to us, "I give everything I have to make camp a better place.") She argued that everyone makes mistakes and that she should be given "another chance," and that our punishment (we consider it a consequence of her own actions) is an over reaction on our part. On the one hand, we do wonder if we are being too hard. (Adriana's parents think that we are.) On the other hand, no where in her messages does she utter a word of concern for Toni, whom we are certain would not be back were Adriana to return to camp. What are your thoughts?

- Chagrined in Chicago

Dear Chagrined,

The story you relate sounds all too familiar. I have heard from several other directors (Maine, California, Pennsylvania) with similar tales. According to the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story of February 17, 2002, the mean-spirited behavior of adolescent girls toward one another is commonplace and seems to peak at about thirteen or fourteen.

Given that Adriana seems more concerned about her own well-being than she is in understanding the impact of her actions on Toni (or on the group as a whole), I would say that any attempt you make to have her apologize personally to Toni will be emotional, dramatic, and hollow. The fact that her parents apparently seem to be minimizing Adriana's actions does not bode well, either. Consider the lesson she would learn were you to have her back: make enough noise, reinvent yourself as the victim, and you can change the outcome to be what you want it to be. My concern is that if you have her back she will feel even more untouchable and have even more of a hold over the group. You must also consider the feelings of some of the other girls in the group. In fact, you are lucky to have gotten the feedback from parents of some of the other girls, as there is often a "code of silence," where girls in a group will not speak out against a female "bully" for fear of reprisals (like being "dropped" by the popular kids) that mostly go undetected by adults.

Adriana sounds like she needs to learn a life lesson the hard way by actually losing the privilege of coming back to camp. She may not learn humility, but at least she will know that sometimes, there are consequences to the choices she makes out of which she cannot charm or threaten her way. When she says that she cannot believe that you are doing this to her, you might remind her that she, indeed, did this to herself.

I believe, however, that you are not finished with this situation once you have made the decision about Adriana. What you still need to do before the summer gets under way is meet with all of the girls of the group who are returning. It would be best if this could happen before June, assuming the girls are somewhat local and you can gather them together for a meeting, but it would still be viable if it is done at the very beginning of camp this summer. You must make it clear that the purpose of the meeting is not to talk about Adriana, but for them to hear from you personally what went into your decision. I would then open things up so you can hear from them how they feel about the situation and end with a reaffirmation about what camp is all about. Have each girl set a goal for herself for the summer. Doing so will help refocus the group on the positive aspects of friendship and help everyone move forward in a positive way. This group is also an ideal candidate for "Girl's Circle," (an activity I have discussed in other columns) which could happen throughout the summer to help monitor how they are doing. If you would like a copy of that activity, you can e-mail me.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at InTheTrenches@bunk1.com or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2002 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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