Socially Isolated Kids Are Not Weapons: They Need Help, Not To Be Labeled As Threats

There is an ad going around the internet; you may have seen it. If not, part of me wants to be all “just watch it!” and not spoil anyone but also part of me wants to be all “content note for implied violence!”

I’ll put my own lengthy take below so you can watch it first without spoilers if you want.

ALL RIGHT. So the deal is that you’re supposed to watch this video and see a cute boy trying to figure out who is flirting with him via notes in the library. Because you’re so distracted by tender teen romance, you’re not supposed to notice what’s happening in the background of certain scenes.

The thing you’re supposed to miss is a kid — white, blonde, headphone-clad — sitting, usually alone, in the background. I actually noticed this kid in the very first scene, and started to suspect he was the real focus of this video in the second.

Here’s the thing though: what I saw throughout this video was an unnoticed kid who is isolated and bullied, and probably depressed. He is reading about guns because a lot of boys get way into a gun-interest phase (or not even a phase) in their teens, because it’s a way of feeling powerful in a world that vilifies weakness. He is watching YouTube videos with a guy holding a gun because, hello, do you know any teenagers, it’s probably a gameplay video for some new military shooter. He is rude to his peers because all teenagers are sometimes rotten people, and then he is physically assaulted by a pack of guys in the hall. Why? He looks ordinary enough. Why are any kids targets for bullies? I watched this kid, not knowing what was coming, and my heart ached for him.

I thought the ad was going to end with a sting about “Did you miss the bullied kid in the background? Don’t ignore bullying! et cetera.”

I did not think the end would instead show a silhouetted kid appearing in the gym with an assault rifle and a message that said, paraphrasing, “DID YOU MISS THE SCHOOL SHOOTER IN THE BACKGROUND? JOKE’S ON YOU! NOW YOU’RE TRAUMATIZED.”

This video was produced for a good cause; I am certain the people who made it are only trying to protect children’s lives. Still, at risk of making an unpopular criticism, this video left me frustrated and upset, but not for the reasons it meant to.

I am frustrated and upset because this kid exists in every school in America. An infinitesimal number of them will ever shoot anyone. Most of them will just negotiate the consequences of their high school experiences for the rest of their lives. And these days, many of them will be radicalized by white nationalist (“alt-right”) communities online, that prey on their disaffection. This is particularly important now that we’ve seen what these communities can do. Like take over the Executive Branch.

There are a lot of reasons why kids get isolated like this; there are a lot of reasons why kids might read gun magazines (an effort to learn to effectively perform masculinity, perhaps) or reject their peers (a violent home life, maybe) or hate their teachers (an inability to ask for or accept help, possibly). These are, to an extent, attributes that may be true for kids who commit school violence, but they are also attributes for a lot of other kids who will never hurt anyone except perhaps themselves, but who are in desperate need of help.

My problem with this ad is that looking at ALL of these kids as “potential school shooters” and treating them as dangerous weapons themselves further distances them from their peers and from the adults who might help them. It positions children as ticking bombs and erases the responsibility of adults and peers to intervene and help before that kid is even close to a point where he or she (and yes, all of this stuff happens to girls too) feels so desperate and disconnected from reality as to do the unthinkable, be that mass murder or suicide, or both.

The idea that some white boys are just not salvageable gained traction in the wake of 1999’s Columbine massacre. In our collective shock and horror, we turned teenage social isolation and detachment into a pathological infection spread by trench coats and scary music. We particularly did this for young white men, however, as those without the same social privileges (ugly girls, fat kids, kids with disabilities, kids who are neurodiverse, and so on) were more or less encouraged to continue being as isolated as ever. But straight white boys who should have every advantage somehow failing to succeed at life despite their privilege? They must be broken somehow. And the kids themselves get to soak up this idea too: “Why do the jocks get all the respect and all the girls? What’s he got that I don’t have?” On a cultural scale, we raise young white men with a sense of global entitlement, so it’s not surprising that they struggle to understand when they don’t get everything they want.

The background kid in this ad is not a “bad apple” beyond all help, or at least, we can’t possibly know what his situation is, because the suggestion the ad makes is simply “watch out for these signs” with no mention of using those signals to help the kid in question, only to protect everyone else from what he might be capable of doing. Yet the far greater risk to Background Kid is that he will become politically weaponized by the internet: first in conversations about how to get girls, because that’s how it starts — later in learning about how immigrants and POC and Jews and women are responsible for all his problems, because that’s where it goes. Marking him as “dangerous” only tills the ground for these seeds: “They’re all just threatened by your strong straight white male power! This is the real injustice!” He is ripe for this path because it’s the only way anyone has ever shown him to feel in control. Because in high school, nobody cared enough to help, and everyone looked the other way. Or worse, the people who should have been helping him instead isolated him further by identifying him as a dangerous threat, when maybe he wasn’t at all… until that happened. We are essentially grooming these kids so a radical political movement can leverage and exploit their alienation.

School shootings are a serious issue. The fact that “school shootings” are even a widely understood cultural phenomenon is horrifying. But the solution is not to look at every socially troubled kid as a risk; it’s to create schools with zero tolerance for bullying, to create a culture that teaches gun owners to keep weapons inaccessible to their kids unless they’re under supervision, to build an environment that SEES kids like Background Kid and recognizes signs that could lead him into a life of further isolation and extreme white-masculine rage and hatred, one that has consequences for all of us. And a world in which when we notice this kid, we actually work hard to help him.

School shootings don’t have to happen, and we should be doing everything in our power to make sure we never see another one. But isolating these kids further is not the way, and there’s a strong possibility it’s only making things worse. For all the background kids, but for everyone else as well.