- Seven young adults posed as high school students for a semester on the A&E show “Undercover High.”
- One of the undercover students, a 26-year-old former bully, described how bullying has changed since she graduated.
- Social media has made the problem a lot worse, she said.
One of the toughest parts of a teenager’s high-school experience is dealing with bullies.
And although many parents have memories of getting picked on, that’s nothing compared to what students are facing today.
At least that’s what Erin, a 26-year-old childcare worker from Milwaukee, discovered after going undercover for a semester at a Kansas high school.
Erin, who described herself as a former bully, was one of seven young adults featured on the A&E documentary series “Undercover High,” which follows the adults as they pose as students at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas. The undercover participants immersed themselves in student life throughout the spring 2017 semester to get a better understanding of the struggles today’s teenagers are dealing with.
Erin told Business Insider that technology has allowed bullying to escalate to unprecedented heights.
“People are much more courageous behind a keyboard. They say things they never would have the guts to say in front of someone. So the attacks on people are more vicious than they used to be,” Erin told Business Insider. “It still hurts whether it’s in person or on social media, but I think that because social media allows people to be more bold, it’s hurting deeper than it used to.”
Erin’s account was echoed by a Highland Park student who told cameras he’s seen “a few people make fake pages just so they can be anonymous and basically make fun of people without nobody knowing who it is.”
Erin said that when she was a high-schooler in Gurnee, Illinois, she initially began picking on people to compensate for her small stature.
“I wasn’t confident in who I was, so I did what I needed to do to make myself stand out,” she said.
“As a young teenager I thought, oh, if the people I’m friends with think it’s funny then it’s not a big deal,” she said.
The turning point for Erin came midway through high school after she got breast-reduction surgery, which prompted hateful comments from her fellow classmates.
“I would walk in the hallway and people would point at me and whisper. Or I’d be sitting in class and people would talk about it,” she told Business Insider. “It wasn’t something I could hide. I was getting a lot of verbal attacks and that’s when I realized that what I was doing wasn’t OK.”
While she was posing as a student at Highland Park, Erin joined an anti-bullying club and shared with the other students her experience of going from bully to victim.
“I’ve been in both shoes and I’ve experienced it from both sides, so it was really easy for me to help them connect them to the person that was hurting them and help them realize it’s not really about hurting you – it’s about them hurting themselves and thinking they’re going to find peace through their hurt,” she said.
Administrators at the school are aware of the cyberbullying problem and have seen the devastating consequences. Bullying contributes to anxiety and depression, studies have shown, and assistant principal Daniel Ackerman said it even led one student to transfer out of the school.
“As a teenager being bullied, it just can feel like they’re entire world is closing in around them,” Erin said.
She hopes her appearance on the show will inspire parents to connect with their children and encourage students to be more forthcoming about their problems.
“We really need to teach our kids that it’s OK to seek help,” she told Business Insider. “It’s OK to tell someone what’s going on and that your feelings, whatever, they are are OK, and they’re valid.”
The next episode of “Undercover High” airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on A&E.