Bullying is a hard subject for people of any age to read about. We are deeply moved and disturbed by stories about children who are in emotional or physical danger -- and when we realize that the Amanda Todds and Jamey Rodemeyers of the world look like our own kids, that danger feels all the more imminent. But who is it that we're telling young people to be afraid of when we report these cases in the media? And is it really keeping them safe?
Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon attempts to answer these questions.
The book continues a dialogue Bazelon started in her 2010 three-part investigative series for Slate.com (where she is a senior editor), "What Really Happened To Phoebe Prince," a controversial piece about the high-profile suicide of a Massachusetts high school student. Prince’s death led to the criminal prosecution of six teenagers and a national conversation about bullying legislation. Bazelon’s investigation untangled the "bullycide" narrative around the bulk of the news coverage of these events, and refused to perpetuate the false narrative that young aggressors cannot also be victims.
Sticks and Stones, which has just recently been published, follows the lives of three separate teens, two bullied and one charged with bullying. Bazelon chronicles Monique, Jacob and Flannery’s stories meticulously, with empathy, and, most importantly, without fetishizing their experiences. The second half of the book suggests solutions, deconstructing the idea that bullying stems from a specific enemy that could, theoretically, be stopped, and focusing our attention squarely on a culture and institutions that need to be changed.
Bazelon's book is a deft, probing look at real life, where there isn't such a clean cut dichotomy between the bully and the bullied -- there's only our children and the support they need, whoever they are.
I spoke with Bazelon, a mom of two tweens herself, about Sticks and Stones, over-diagnosing bullying, and why we shouldn't be giving parents a "pass" when it comes to bullying.
When I interact with teens, I don't hear the word "bullying" being thrown around a lot -- they call it "drama," among other things. In the time that you spent with the teens in this book, what were the major differences between how they perceived bullying and how their parents perceived it?
I think kids actually use the words "bullying" and "drama" pretty correctly. What I mean by that is they reserve the word "bullying" for really chronicle abuse that involves being miserable, and they use "drama" for the two-way conflicts that go back and forth and for [the feeling] of being left out. Sometimes parents who are hyper-aware start to throw out the word "bullying" when anything goes wrong with their kid. So, that's a problem, like "crying wolf" in a way that diminishes their credibility. It can make people feel like this problem is everywhere, and that makes it seem more intractable than it really is.
It's really important to emphasize that bullying is unusual. The rates haven't risen, and the kids who are involved as bullies or victims or both is between only 10 and 25 percent of kids in all categories. Most kids aren't bullies and they don't get bullied.
Is that what you mean when you say that we tend to "over-diagnose" the problem?
There are two things going on at the same time right now. One is exactly what you said, that there's an over-diagnosis. Talking to parents I hear a lot of the time, "Hey, I'm starting to hear about bullying all the time. Have we lost sight of the fact that sometimes kids have fights?" I think it's important to say, "No, you're right. Kids do need to have fights and every time they have a conflict it's not bullying."
The second thing, though, is that some schools, like Jacob's school and Monique's school, at the time weren't taking bullying seriously enough. You can have over-diagnosis, and you can also still have a problem with under-diagnosis in different places.
Where does the media play into this?
They are hyping the problem of bullying. There are a lot of stories that talk about an "epidemic," which is wrong.
On the other hand, the media has gotten people's attention, so that helps raise awareness and generates a sense of emergency that is helping [with a] good prevention effort. Sometimes you can have awareness that isn't completely grounded in reality, but still has some good effects. I do worry that when a problem gets hyped, we sometimes are drawn to a quick-fix and "magic bullet" types of solutions. There really isn't [one that works] for bullying.
There's a big focus in "Sticks and Stones" on how using Facebook affects kids. Do you think young people sharing information about themselves online is part of the problem?
I think that social media sites are habituating kids to giving up too much of their privacy. I'm not anti-Facebook. I understand the fun and the benefit to it. I'm on Facebook myself and I'm sure at some point my kids will be, too. I think that we need to be clear with teenagers about the problems with putting everything out there for everyone to see. That's my issue with these companies, and I think they could do a lot more to set boundaries for kids initially so that they're not -- without even thinking about it -- exposing everything that they write and every picture they put up.
Why is that a bullying issue?
The default settings for teenagers are that you're not just sharing with your Facebook friends, but with your "friends of friends" -- and that's a lot of people, because kids collect hundreds of friends on Facebook. It can easily reach a lot of people. So then, when there's a thread of bullying going on, it has a potential to reach a really large audience. It doesn't happen all the time, but it could, and I think when I talk to kids who are targets of bullying online that's a real worry for them.
Since you are a parent of a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old, I was surprised to read that you think we blame schools and give parents a pass in a lot of these situations. In what ways do you think we should be holding parents accountable?
Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at Harvard who I quote at the end of my book, says that he worries parents right now are valuing individual achievement and the happiness of their kids over moral character and the collective good. I just want us all to think about that: Are you just as pleased and just as praising of your kid if you find out that he stood up for a horrible kid as you would be for a really good report card? Are we making it clear to kids that empathy is this fundamental value that we prize above all else?
My dream for this book is that teenagers will read it, with their parents, with their teachers, or just on their own. And what I hope is that the stories in the book make people think about what went wrong and what went right... Why were those girls so mean to Monique? What was going on in their school in their lives that made them broach that? Because they're not really bad kids. Why was it that Jacob wearing lipstick and nail polish was such a big deal at his school, and how can you change the way other students react to that?