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A conversation with Emily Bazelon, author of STICKS AND STONES

Friday, February 15th, 2013

Bazelon_Sticks and StonesA conversation between Emily Bazelon, author of STICKS AND STONES, and her editor, Andy Ward. No writer is better poised to explore the territory and topic of bullying than Emily, who has established herself as a leading voice on the social and legal aspects of teenage drama. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

“Beautifully written and tenaciously reported, Sticks and Stones is a serious, important book that reads like a page-turner. Emily Bazelon is a gifted writer, and this powerful work is sure to place childhood bullying at the heart of the national conversation—right where it belongs.”—Susan Cain, author of Quiet

Q. It seems like every week, there is a bullying story in the news. Has bullying become more prevalent?

Bullying isn’t really on the rise, according to the studies that have tracked it over the past 25 years. But the stories about bullying that have gotten a ton of national attention have raised our antennae. Also, bullying does feel more pervasive for a lot of kids because it extends to the Web, which they can access 24/7. When it moves online, bullying is more constant, visible, and viral.

Q. Is there a crisis of bullying in the nation’s schools?

Bullying is definitely not an epidemic. And increasingly, schools are trying to address it. But they’re not having uniform success, of course, and some efforts are ineffectual, like one-time assemblies, or straitjacketed, like zero-tolerance policies.

Q. What is bullying, exactly? Is there an official definition?

Yes—bullying is verbal or physical aggression that occurs repeatedly and involves a power differential—one or more children lording their status over another.

Q. How did you get interested in the topic?

When I was in 8th grade, I had my own experience with bullying. First, my group of friends fired me, which I can say drily now, but at the time was immensely painful. Then I made a new friend, and when she was being bullied, I had the chance to help her by standing up to her tormenters, and I didn’t do anything. I’ve thought a lot about my own cowardice in that moment and it makes me want to figure out how to help other kids do better.

Q. So what’s the answer—what can young people do to deal with bullying when they see it happen?

If you see other kids being cruel, think about the steps you could realistically take to stop it. You don’t have to jump into the middle of a fight (though if you’re up for that, don’t let me stop you!), and you don’t have to commit to befriending the person you’re helping, either. Sometimes just sending a sympathetic text or asking someone if she or he is okay means a lot.

Q. What do you say to adults who say bullying is just “kids being kids”?

It’s not! The vast majority of kids do not bully. And the ongoing cruelty that bullying involves can do serious damage. This is not a problem to be shrugged off—that’s just nuts.

Q. OK, but at the same time, is much of what gets talked about as bullying in the media in fact better described as general meanness or conflict?

Yes. The definition above is helpful precisely because it’s limiting—it makes clear that two-way, mutual conflict is not bullying. At the same time, when bullying is going on, it’s a form of mistreatment that kids often find very upsetting and that links up with serious problems like low academic performance. That’s true for both bullies and targets. So, the bullying label is one we should use sparingly, because when it applies, it has real significance.

Q. What are your thoughts on the media portrayal of cases where young people are “bullied to death”—the “bullycide” phenomenon?

It worries me. It’s true that in some cases bullying precedes suicide, no question. But the idea that a teenager’s decision to take his own life can be blamed entirely on another teenager—that is often a big oversimplification, with damaging repercussions. Often, there are more layers to unpack, and a history of mental health troubles to address. But the facts get drowned out in an initial burst of finger pointing, and then we wind up with responses that don’t fit the real problems at hand.

Q. Let’s say you have a child who is being bullied at school, and you feel the administration is not responding. What should you do, as a parent?

First, make sure you have all the facts. Sometimes an accusation of bullying can seem simple but turn out to be multidimensional once you understand the full context. Your job, of course, is to support your child. And sometimes it will be very clear that he or she is in the role of victim and needs your protection. Sometimes, however, you will learn that she has played a more active role in what kids often call “drama.” It’s important to protect your child but it’s also important not to cry wolf. And if what’s happening is bullying, you need specific examples to make your case.

Q. Let’s say you have a child who is being bullied online or via texting. What should you do, as a parent?

You can ask a social network site to take down any content that violates its rules, as many harassing posts do. If the site is Facebook, when the target of an abusive post reports it himself, they will generally take his word for it, they told me. So your child should report the abuse to them. You should also keep a record of the cruel content—even if you feel like just deleting it. It’s almost never a good idea to reply to a harassing post. If your child is having continuing trouble, you can advise taking a break from social networking for a while (though that can be a hard sell!) Kids can always go back when things have calmed down.

Police have the authority to address cyberbullying under the harassment laws of most states. But calling in the cops should be a thought-through decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction because it can also trigger a response that’s more heavy-handed than called for.

Q. Are companies like Facebook doing their share to combat bullying and harassment on social media sites?

These companies could and should do more. A good sign: Facebook is working with researchers to refine the responses kids get when they report bullying. But all of these sites could do more with the influence they have over kids—when they do intervene, they see a “low recidivism rate,” as one Facebook employee told me. The sites could also work with schools—to help head off trouble when it starts, and to ask principals and guidance counselors what they could do across the board.

Q. What do you wish every principal or educator would start doing immediately to make things better?

The first step to addressing bullying is to get a handle on it. Do a survey. Figure out your priorities for improving behavior and how bullying prevention fits in. Most schools have the money and the bandwidth for one good intervention that addresses behavior and character building, so it’s crucial to figure out what would most benefit the students.

Q. What are your thoughts on dealing with groups who are most likely to be targeted for bullying, like the disabled and LGBT youth, or religious minorities like Muslims?

These kids often need dedicated help gaining acceptance. Sometimes, that means challenging people’s prejudices. For example, one of the best things a school can do to prevent anti-gay harassment—which remains disturbingly common—is to start a Gay-Straight Alliance. Studies show that LGBT students at schools with these groups tend to experience less victimization, skip school less often, and feel a greater sense of belonging.

Q. Can empathy be taught? If true bullies lack it, what can be done to instill it?

Yes, thank goodness, empathy and character building can be taught! This is a key insight at the heart of every good bullying prevention or character education effort. For a small number of kids who bully, it’s true, the inability to feel empathy is the scary hallmark of a psychopath—someone who can inflict pain without feeling remorse. But true inability to feel empathy, luckily, is exceedingly rare. Most kids do feel or can learn to feel empathy and remorse. It’s our job to help them find that capacity within themselves, and build on it.

For more information and printable resource guides visit Emily’s website.

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