In researching her book “Sticks and Stones,” Emily Bazelon was struck by how many of the adults she interviewed “could access, with riveting clarity, a memory of childhood bullying.” Whether they had been victims, bullies or bystanders didn’t seem to matter. “These early experiences of cruelty were transformative,” she writes, “no matter which role you played in the memory reel.”
Bullying isn’t new. But our attempts to respond to it are, as Bazelon explains in her richly detailed, thought-provoking book. Scholarship on bullying has its roots in the 1970s, when Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus developed what became the gold standard for prevention programs in schools. Yet it wasn’t until 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire on their Columbine classmates, that the United States began tackling the issue in a serious way.
Today, however, the challenge has been complicated by kids’ access to new technologies, which have given rise to virtual tormentors, cyberbullies and “Facebook thugs.” Whether or not the Internet has made bullying more frequent, it has made it more pernicious and pervasive. Malicious gossip that once was limited to the hallways or the bathroom walls now spreads like wildfire through “the constant connectivity of cell phones and laptops.” Harsh words hastily exchanged online can hit harder than when delivered face to face. Kids can’t get away from bullies who pop up on the screens in their bedrooms. Emotional violence in the virtual world can inflict real pain.
Young girls, who tend to be greater users of social media, are especially at risk. As Bazelon describes, when the Pew Research Center asked 12- and 13-year-old girls, “Have you had a bad experience online that made you nervous about going to school the next day?,” more than 25 percent said yes. The vicious online exchanges reprinted in “Sticks and Stones” could turn this 21st-century mom into a Luddite. Combine that with the headline-grabbing tragedies of young bullying victims who turn to suicide, and parents of adolescents can be forgiven for obsessing about the tech-toting teen barbarians at the gate.
Yet “Sticks and Stones” is not intended to fuel parental hysteria. Rather than bemoan the bullying epidemic, Bazelon reassures us that none exists — or at least that the statistics haven’t really changed since the 1970s. To deal effectively with bullying, she asserts, we should “choose the response that fits the facts, not our less rational fears.”
True bullying is characterized by repeated acts of physical or verbal aggression in which a physically stronger or more popular child wields that power over a weaker one. Conflict among equals and random acts of meanness don’t qualify. This doesn’t mean that what kids call “drama” is pleasant to live through. But the vast majority of young people never get involved in the oppressive brutality of bullying, and broadcasting that fact could be helpful in combating the problem. As Bazelon points out, “When kids understand that concerted cruelty is the exception and not the rule, they respond: bullying drops, and students become more active about reporting it.”
A law school graduate and journalist, Bazelon makes her case through the lens of three teenagers’ experiences: a 13-year-old girl whose persecution began over a hairdo and escalated to the point that she changed schools; an eighth-grade boy who sued his school for failing to protect him against anti-gay harassment; and a female high school student who faced criminal charges in connection with the suicide of another teen who had been bullied before her death. Comprehensive in her reporting and balanced in her conclusions, Bazelon extracts from these stories useful lessons for young people, parents and principals alike.
Most enlightening and disturbing, however, is her discussion of social networking sites such as Formspring and Facebook. These platforms can be potent conduits for cruelty; a 2011 survey by the Pew Center found that 15 percent of teens “said they’d been harassed on a social networking site in the last twelve months.” Twenty million kids are Facebook users, and as Bazelon persuasively argues, Facebook could easily devote more resources to tackling online bullying, helping schools to do the same and enforcing its own policies.
I was impressed, for example, by the influence Facebook holds over young users; 94 percent of Facebook users under 18 who posted objectionable content never caused a problem again after receiving just one official warning that “content they posted prompted an abuse report the site had investigated and confirmed.” Yet Bazelon reports that the Facebook employees who review harassment complaints spend only a few seconds per case, and with 2 million abuse reports of all kinds pouring in every week, many seem to slip through the cracks. There’s no hotline to get immediate relief from antisocial networking.
Bazelon concludes by urging parents to rethink the balance between how we let our kids spend their time and the way we supervise them: “If you wouldn’t let your kids out at night alone, why would you give them unfettered access to every corner of the Internet?” In-person contact and communication are the cornerstones of healthy relationships. In an age where our kids can have 5,000 “friends,” they need to learn what it really means to be one.
STICKS AND STONES
Defeating the Culture of Bullying
and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy
By Emily Bazelon
Random House. 386 pp. $27