Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy is Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon's in-depth look at bullying and a blueprint for how to reduce it. She tells compelling stories from the perspective of both the bullied and the bullies, explores the new world of online bullying, looks deep into the academic literature, and provides answers to the problem. She discussed it all with Slate's “Dear Prudence” columnist, Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe: What was the most surprising thing your reporting turned up?
Emily Bazelon: One piece of research in particular helped me understand why kids bully—how that can be a rational, if unfortunate, choice. Robert Faris at U.C. Davis mapped social networks in a few different high schools, and he showed that kids behaving aggressively—not physically, but socially—use gossip, exclusion, and attacks on other kids’ reputations to help themselves move up the social ladder. It turned out that for most kids, it didn’t work, in terms of increasing status, to attack someone much weaker. But if you picked on someone near you in the social hierarchy who was a possible rival, that often had a social benefit. It is sort of depressing but important to understand, I think. People ask: Why do kids act this way? But kids are doing what anyone would do: maximizing their social influence. So then the question is: How do we upend this?
Yoffe: Is it even realistic to think you can upend it? Aren’t you talking about a pervasive part of human nature?
Bazelon: Aggression is endemic to human nature, and we wouldn’t want to stamp it out. Kids are not always going to be nice to one another. But bullying is a certain kind of harmful aggression. The agreed-upon definition is that it’s verbal or physical aggression that is repeated over time and involves a power differential. It’s one kid lording it over another, and because it persists, the victim can find it particularly devastating. We can help kids realize this kind of aggression is not the norm, and in the end, it’s not the best way to advance socially, either.
One school I write about did a survey, and the results showed that 90 percent of students there did not exclude other kids at the lunch table. So they put this information on posters around the school, and the incidence of exclusion dropped even further. There’s an analogy here to the campaign against drunk driving. When I was in high school, I felt it was a tiny bit cool to drink and drive. There wasn’t a strong message about how dangerous and wrong it was. But parents, schools, and the media have succeeded in impressing that on kids, and now they are less likely to do it—and the death rate from drunk driving among young people has gone down significantly. There are social problems that seem intractable, but when we put energy into pushing back, we are able to change things.
Yoffe: You write about your own experience being bullied in middle school, when you say your friends “fired” you. Did your parents handle the situation correctly when they told you to ignore the mean girls and make new friends? Or do you now realize there was something else they should have done?
Bazelon: My parents were pretty good. They were clued into what was going on, they didn’t minimize or say I was being silly to be so upset. They gave good advice to make new friends. The notion that you can walk away from a toxic social situation, take yourself out of it, and find a new social group is right, even if it’s hard to do. What my parents didn’t do was ask the school for help. At that time, in the 1980s, I don’t think that would have occurred to many parents. And I probably would have said no if they had wanted to! So in my case, and more tellingly in the case of another girl in my class I write about, who really was bullied, there was no suggestion that this was the school’s affair. If this were happening to my kid, I would try to find someone at school to help. But even now the research shows most kids don’t tell adults at school, and sadly those that do report that their situations don’t necessarily improve. That has to change so that the kids who go for help really get it.
Yoffe: Is there a danger in adults getting too involved in this? Have you found that adults can overreact and then make the kids think of themselves as damaged victims?
Bazelon: Yes, and that’s why I think it’s important to use the bullying label sparingly. Lots of psychological literature shows that seeing oneself only as a victim doesn’t help people advance in life. In a well-intentioned effort to help kids treat one another better, we do have to be careful not to overpolice or overprotect them. They have to make mistakes and experience adversity, and we can’t fix everything along the way. In some upper- and middle-class communities, we can veer too far in that direction. But some real mistreatment does get swept under the rug, so I worry about the opposite problem at the same time.
Yoffe: You write at length about how social media, texting, etc. has changed the nature of bullying. Suddenly the record is permanent, everyone can read the nasty things being said. Has social media made kids meaner? Has it enabled bullying the way the Internet gave new life to the spread of child pornography?
Bazelon: Cyberbullying is mostly a new expression of an old phenomenon. Most kids caught up in it are kids who are also involved in in-person bullying. The cyberbully is not a new creature. And moving online hasn’t caused the rate of bullying to rise, so much as make the meanness feel more prevalent, because it can be 24/7. When kids go home they don’t get a break anymore. Because if they’re going online, they can see what other kids are saying about them at any time, in front of an audience. It can also elevate the meanness. The spoken word is ephemeral, but the written word, once posted, can be permanent and even go viral. Also, the act of posting can block kids’ sense of empathy. They can push send without thinking through the consequences. (Adults can, too.)
The upside is that parents have a chance to monitor what their kids are writing and to get clued in. But that’s tricky, too, of course, because parents have to figure out how much to keep track of their kids online. I don’t think there’s much consensus about that. My own feeling is that it’s best to start off stricter, as your kid gets his first phone or social media account. Explain that you’re overseeing this the way you would any whole new world he is entering. And then you can ease up as he gets the hang of it.