My tweens enthusiastically relate particularly clever “roasts,” the zingers that ping back and forth among friends.
“You’re what happens when women drink when they’re pregnant.”
“You’re so ugly your parents asked the doctor for a refund the day you were born.”
“You’re so fat, flight attendants tell passengers to use you as a flotation device.”
This banter mirrors celebrity roasts, where a public figure is humorously dressed down in front of an audience. In theory, it demonstrates that the roastee is a good sport who can handle the heat, while roasters flex their wit. No harm, no foul, right?
People have been trash talking for years, but current adult behavior and constant access to social media are enabling today’s kids to refine the practice, and take it to new levels. Kids can hone their skills watching adult comedians roast each other. When professionals engage in the practice, nothing is off limits. In the same way, social media offers myriad opportunities to roast and be roasted. In both cases, though, there’s a disconnect. Kids see the insults but no evidence of efforts to temper comments or show compassion for the subject’s feelings.
Kids seem eager to dismiss the practice as good-natured fun, but I can’t imagine how the rewards outweigh potential costs, especially for tweens and teens. Living with junior high students, I’m acutely aware of kids’ vulnerability when it comes to comments about their appearance, intelligence, social ability and more. Exchanges that call out those things that kids already worry about seem ripe for misunderstanding and hurt feelings.
So how harmless is it?
Donald A. Moses, psychiatrist and co-author of “Raising Independent, Self-confident Kids” and “The Tween Book” says: “We have to differentiate between roasting and bullying: When it’s roasting, the victim volunteers. That’s the difference. So, if you want to talk about roasting, you have to talk about a kid who volunteers to be picked on.”
Roasting can take place in real time, with verbal banter among kids. Or it can take the form of roast-offs, where kids go head-to head to see who can land the craftiest series of insults. It also happens on social media, which is abuzz with #roastme posts where users post selfies requesting a public lambasting. Responses focus on roastees’ appearance, weight, sexual orientation, sexual experience and more. Suggestions that roastees have been victims of sexual or physical abuse are also common.
There is a popular subreddit, #r/RoastMe, for roasters and roastees. They must adhere to rules that include age restrictions and stipulations that aim to maintain “a comedy subreddit, not a hate subreddit.”
Why would someone sign up to be roasted, especially on social media, where the invitation is broadly extended to a vast, unknown audience?
Moses says that it could be an attention-getting ploy, or it could be the result of guilt. “He feels guilty about something … so he looks for punishment,” he says. “It’s mea culpa, like the self-flagellation of the Middle Ages.” Another possibility, Moses, says, is that the child “was raised with parents who would hit him or abuse him and the only relationship he knew with mom and dad was that of being hit, picked on or criticized.”
Volunteering to be roasted, then, may become a form of self-harm that feels deserved or natural.
When roasting becomes bullying
Bullying laws and regulations are ubiquitous in schools. Most students are trained from a young age to recognize bullying and to advocate for victims. So why, then, would they gravitate toward humor that mimics bullying?
Danielle Matthew, founder of The Empowerment Space Bullying Therapy Program and author of “The Empowered Child,” explains that she often finds herself differentiating among roasting, teasing and bullying for the parents, educators and students she trains. Roasting differs from bullying because the roastee volunteers to be a target, and because it’s not power-driven or habitual.
"If it’s a one-time thing, it may not be appropriate, but I don’t necessarily think it’s bullying,” she says.
But is it a good idea, regardless of the intent? Does this friendly fire toughen kids up or prepare them for the competitive real world? Do these comments hurt kids less because they are made in good fun?
Moses says no. “It leaves them cowering and makes them more frightened … If you’re there with your friend and he’s cleaning his pistol and he accidentally shoots you through the heart, will it hurt you any less because he’s your friend? … These ‘friends’ don’t have the judgment to know when to stop. Some do, but most don’t.”
Even when there are rules that govern the roasting, such as on the subreddit, Moses says that doesn’t matter, because it exploits real vulnerabilities for an audience’s amusement. Doing this in a witty way makes the roast successful on one side, but painful on the other. This dynamic can be particularly confusing for insecure teens and tweens who are hyper-aware of differences.
“Adults tend to love differences. We tend to think people are interesting when they are unlike us,” Matthew says. “Kids, generally, don’t understand that. If someone is different from them, they may not feel comfortable with that person, and that’s a reason, I think, why kids bully.”
Talking to kids about roasting
Giving kids clear messages about roasting is important. In particular, online roasts are a bad idea. They can be devastating to roastees and incriminating to roasters, leaving a digital footprint that reflects poorly on the perpetrator in a lasting and traceable way.
In real-time situations, Matthew advises that kids self-check to see if they are crossing the line. Matthew recommends they ask: “Am I consistently doing this? Is there a person I’m targeting and focusing and teasing and roasting all the time, or is this a friend of mine who I’m teasing and it’s a one-time thing?”
Matthew also suggests that roastees also engage in introspection, and ask themselves how much control they have over the situation: “I can control my reactions and how I respond when they’re either bullying, roasting, teasing or making fun of me. I can choose to calmly walk away and not show that I’m not getting upset, which decreases their power.”
Roastees should also ask themselves what they get in return for volunteering to be the target, and why they want to do it. They can then turn to a trusted adult for support.
There are plenty of healthy ways for kids to exercise their wit that don’t involve tearing someone else down: drawing comics, performing improv, writing satire. The old saying stands up: We want to teach our kids to laugh with, not at, each other.
“I think people think if they call it ‘roasting’ it’s not bullying, it’s not teasing, it’s not necessarily hurting people’s feelings,” Matthew says. “Maybe it’s a way to get away with it.”
But parents should ask themselves: Is it something we want them to get away with?
Eileen Hoenigman Meyer is a freelance writer and blogger based in Illinois. She tweets @EileenHMeyer.