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Documentary helps social workers, others get into the minds of people who bully

Scene from "Confessions of a Social Bully."

Scene from “Confessions of a Social Bully.”

When “Natasha” was in middle school she bullied “Jane” mercilessly. She said being a bully helped her feel in control of her turbulent emotions.

“Being mean to Jane, for me, took away the pain of feeling bad about myself and feeling like there was nothing I could do about that,” she says in the short documentary “Confessions of a Social Bully.”

The film, by documentary filmmaker Lisa Cohen, who is also a year away from earning her masters in social work, is an insightful trip into the mind of a middle school student who bullied another person.

It also raises awareness about social or relational bullying. This occurs when a person bullies someone by trying to hurt their reputation or relationships with others. It can include excluding someone from a group or spreading rumors about them.

Cohen hopes the film will raise awareness “about kids who are perpetrators of bullying and what they might be going through,” so adults can consider a different approach to ending this type of harassment.

Rather than jumping to disciplinary action,  teachers, administrators and social workers should consider delving into what’s driving the bully’s behavior, she said.

“I’m hoping people will consider the needs of the perpetrators as much as they consider the needs of the targets and the bystanders in any situation because kids who bully others are experiencing some kind of pain—they’re lashing out for a reason and the reasons are vast.”

In the film, 20-year-old Natasha (neither girl is referred to by their real name)  reflects on how she used her popularity to socially “punish” her intelligent and gifted classmate, Jane, while secretly struggling with her own insecurities and envy of Jane’s achievements.

“Kids who bully are experiencing something and usually it’s some kind of pain,” added Cohen, who began making the film in 2013 and finished in 2016. “Unless we address what they’re going through we’re not going to be able to help them.”

Making film inspired Lisa Cohen to become social worker

Cohen said making the short film—intended for students and those charged with helping them—greatly influenced her decision to study social work.

“Making this film was a turning point for me,” she said. “I decided that I really want to go back to school to study social work and delve further in this area.”

Cohen will earn her masters in social work from the University of Washington School of Social Work in 2018.

The film was released this year and premiered at the Children’s Film Festival in Seattle. It won an award for best film for ages 12 and up.

Bullying carries psychological, health risks for perpetrators and victims

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, about one out of five school students in the United States reported being bullied in 2016.

Those who are bullied are at increased risk for poor school adjustment, sleep difficulties, anxiety, and depression, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Children who bully others are at increased risk for academic problems, substance use, and violent behavior later in adolescence and adulthood, the CDC adds.

Lisa Cohen. Photo courtesy of Jewish in Seattle Magazine.

Lisa Cohen. Photo courtesy of Jewish in Seattle Magazine.

Cohen’s documentary uses animation and artwork to tell Natasha’s story. Natasha confesses that she realizes now that her behavior was a cry for help—something none of the adults in her orbit understood.

Natasha and Jane, who are now in their twenties, later became friends in high school. But the impact of the harassment still lingers for Jane, who Cohen says was initially supposed to be in the film but backed out because years later the wounds are still fresh.

Today, “social bullying or relational aggression is really what’s behind cyber bullying on social media,” Cohen said. “It’s using your relationships to harm another.”

It’s also something that isn’t highly reported and it can be confusing for children, because it is so subtle, Cohen said.

“It’s hard to go to a teacher and say somebody turned their back on me,” which is what Natasha got other kids to do to Jane, among other things, Cohen said.

The film, which has been shown at a few festivals and will screen in India in November, is also being used in classrooms in Seattle public schools and is slated to be part of the school’s curriculum for sixth graders.

“My goal is to get it out to as many school districts as possible,” Cohen said.

Social workers help children overcome life’s challenges and reach their full potential. To learn more visit the National Association of Social Workers “Help Starts Here” Kids and Families website.

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  1. How can we purchase a copy of this film??

  2. Please contact social worker Lisa Cohen to get a copy of the film at this URL:

  3. I think it is interesting that adults bully others too and family members and this would be a good topic to expand on as well as to the dynamics which are similar to children bullying probably,


  1. “Confessions of a Social Bully” available to stream online | Social Workers Speak

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