HomeHealth & BehaviorBullying

Sticks, stones, and drama: the truth about bullying

Author Emily Bazelon talks about her new book -- and what kids, parents, and schools can do to put an end to bullying.

Photo credit: Nina Subin

By Connie Matthiessen

This year an estimated 18 million children will be affected by bullying. Every 7 minutes a child is bullied on a school playground. An epidemic of cyberbullying has inspired a whole new kind of cruelty among children. Every day, as many as 160,000 children stay home because they feel unsafe at school.

Such frightening stats about bullying fly across the ether and airwaves, shaping  public perception of "the crisis” that seems to have transformed our schoolyards into war zones. But depending on where you find them, "facts" about bullying vary radically. Another source claims that 8 million children— not 18 — will be affected by bullying every year.  A third puts the number at 13 million.

What’s the truth about bullying? Do we all agree on its definition? Is there really a bullying crisis?

In her new book, Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon set out to answer these questions. Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, and mother of two school-aged sons, covered the case of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts teenager who took her life after she was bullied at school, for Slate, so she’d already seen how media coverage of bullying incidents can perpetuate as many fictions as facts.

For her book, Bazelon talked to kids, parents, teachers, school administrators, and experts to explore the reality of bullying today, how kids are coping with the new cyber reality, and the most successful strategies to combat the problem. Before her interview with Terri Gross and a TV appearance that brought Stephen Colbert to tears, Bazelon took time out to talk to GreatSchools about mean girls, the media's influence on high-profile bullying incidents, and what parents can do to stem the tide of bullying in their own children’s lives.

We’ve heard a lot about the “bullying epidemic” in recent years, but you dispute that we’re actually experiencing an epidemic.

There’s something intriguing about the idea of something being an epidemic — and it’s easy to get that impression when a topic gets a lot of media coverage. The combination of kids, the internet, and risk is a media magnet, and some recent bullying incidents have received a lot of attention and sensational news coverage — and some of that coverage has been really irresponsible. So it’s understandable that people think we’re facing a bullying crisis, when in fact rates of bullying have been consistent over the last 25 years

Cyberbullying: not-so-brave new world

Cyberbullying has added a whole new dimension to bullying, and also reinforced the idea that bullying is out of control. But what I’ve discovered doing research for this book is that cyberbullying isn’t a whole new phenomenon, it’s just another form or avenue for bullying. When there’s a bullying incident going on, the bully shuttles back and forth between bullying in person and bullying on- line. But because we’re still getting a handle on this new online world, this new dimension seems different and frightening, and adds to our sense that the problem is out of control — when in fact cyberbullying makes up just a small fraction of bullying incidents.

It’s comforting to know that there isn’t a bullying epidemic and that bullying isn’t actually on the rise, but that doesn’t mean that bullying isn’t a problem that we should be very concerned about.

You argue that if it’s not carried too far and the target isn’t an especially vulnerable kid, bullying can be an experience that kids actually learn from.

There is some truth to the old saying, “what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.” Any type of adversity can have that effect. It’s humbling to come through a negative experience, and you learn a tremendous amount.

I’m not advocating for more bullying. I want to be clear about that. But we can’t make our kids’ lives perfect, and they are going to face adversity. On the other hand, for some number of kids bullying is a truly harmful experience, and you can’t predict ahead of time which kids are going to be permanently harmed. Because we know that in some cases bullying has terrible fallout for both the perpetrator and the victim: doing poorly in school, criminal behavior, and even suicide.

Connie Matthiessen is a San Francisco writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Health, San Francisco, WebMD, and other publications. She has three children (who provide a close-up perspective on great and not-so-great schools) and two chubby cats.