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.

In your book you point out that kids make a distinction between “drama” and “bullying.” What’s the difference?

Kids are pretty savvy. They know when a conflict is two-way and mutual — what they call “drama” – and when it’s lop-sided, which is bullying. Drama includes gossip, kids arguing with each other back and forth, but it’s a mutual back and forth. Psychologist and anti-bullying expert Dan Olweus defined bullying as verbal or physical aggression that’s repeated over time and that involves a power differential. I think this is a useful limiting definition. Bullying isn’t mutual conflict, there’s a power imbalance, and it’s associated with more serious harm. I think we should listen to kids about this and not jump in and get involved when it’s just drama.

Thugs, mean girls, and bully victims

Can you talk about what you think causes a child to bully? There’s a girl you mention in the book who would taunt kids about their shabby clothing, and then it turns out her father had lost everything in the recession. Is it often kids who have problems, or experience bullying themselves, who end up bullying other kids?

In my book I talk about the different types of bullies. There’s the thug in training, who steals other kids lunch money, and the mean girl — the popular girl  who has a lot of power and bullies other kids (although of course it’s not just girls who bully in this way).

And then there is a really important type of bully that often gets missed, and that’s the bully victim. These are kids who have been bullied themselves, or faced serious problems at home; they may have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence. These bullies can be hard to sympathize with but they are often the most troubled, and their behavior is a cry for help.

You point out that adults often make the problem worse when they get involved in bullying situations.

That’s a theme throughout my book: in many cases when there’s a bullying incident and it turns into a huge community conflict, adult involvement seems to make the problem worse. In the case of two of the kids I follow in the book, Monique and Jacob, adults in the community didn’t do enough. In the aftermath of the Phoebe Prince suicide, adults did too much, and made the situation worse.

You covered the Phoebe Prince story in depth. This was a case that received a tremendous amount of press attention, and the coverage painted a very black and white picture of a girl being relentlessly preyed upon by bullies at her school. Can you talk about the how the incident was presented in the press versus the reality you found in your reporting?

The Phoebe Prince case is an incredibly sad story. She committed suicide and there was a drive to blame a few kids for what happened. And the bullying was not made up: on the day of her death, 3 kids had been cruel to her, she was “slut shamed” — that is, kids were following her and calling her a slut, and there were all kinds of rumors swirling around about her. So there was a kernel of truth to the story that she was being bullied. Meanwhile, the school district didn’t handle the media well, and they went ahead with a scheduled dance two days after Phoebe died, which was very insensitive to the family. The whole community was hit with a huge wave of national and international media coverage that no one was prepared for. And then the district attorney brought charges against the kids involved and proposed heavy criminal sentences, which brought still more media attention.

Media hall of mirrors

Phoebe died in January, 2010, and I went there in February. I had just started working on a series on cyberbullying for Slate, and then I heard about Phoebe, and I went to South Hadley. I was expecting to find a really scary high school, and a really scary community. I wanted to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong there, so I talked to everyone I could. But when I talked to kids in the school and to other people there, and no one I talked to felt that the story that was getting so much attention in the press was accurate. The kids who were being charged had admittedly made mistakes. But [in contrast to some media reports] they had not been bullying Phoebe for months [and] they weren’t terrorizing the hallways. The story was a lot more complicated…and the way it was being presented in the media didn’t pick up any of the nuances.

The kids involved seemed to become bullying targets themselves, with neighbors hounding them, and press stakeouts at their homes.

It’s true, and that’s the problem when it comes to making an example of people, and making a few people take the blame publically to teach a lesson. These were teenagers, after all. They weren’t blameless, but the idea that they could face multiyear sentences was out of proportion with what they’d actually done.

School bullying and how to stop it

What works and what doesn’t when it comes to school anti-bullying programs?

There are a couple of important lessons in terms of creating an effective anti–bullying program. The whole-school approach has been shown to work — it doesn’t work to just focus on the bully or the victim or the single incident here and there. You need to change the culture of the entire school. School wide anti-bullying programs have been shown to work. The goal is to change the social norm, in terms of bullying. You want to make the case to kids, ideally to have kids make the case to kids, that bullying isn’t acceptable. I know that sounds like a tough goal, but there are examples out there of changing social norms. Drunk driving provides a hopeful history lesson, for example. Drunk driving has gone down a lot since I was a teenager — I think because of education about risks, and tough sanctions. Teenagers now seem to understand how dangerous it is in a way they didn’t when I was a teenager.

What doesn’t work, in terms of anti-bullying programs, is the one-day anti-bullying workshop. The school brings in an expert for the day to talk to teachers, and that’s the end of it. For an anti-bullying program to work it can’t be just once, you have to have an ongoing dialogue that the whole school engages in. And you aren’t going to create change overnight — it’s a long-term process.

You emphasize the importance of character and empathy in combatting bullying, and suggest that parents should be instilling these qualities in their children. Do you think parents aren’t doing that enough?

I think that’s a danger for middle class parents today. We want things to be perfect for our kids, and I understand this as a parent: you want your kids to be happy. But I think we also need to be instilling the skills and moral capacity for empathy, and that doesn’t come about just by ensuring their happiness.

The power of empathy

Empathy is really important. I’m interested in the role of the audience in bullying incidents, and how to harness the empathy of bystanders to stop bullying. Research shows that four out of five bullying incidents have an audience, but observers step in to stop bullying in just one in five cases. When they do step in, they stop the bullying half the time. When kids are interviewed, they’ll tell you that they oppose bullying. So bystanders are an enormous untapped resource.

This is why building kids’ capacity for empathy is so important. It’s something you can do when you’re sitting around the dinner table with your kids. You can ask questions like, “How would you feel if you were in that kid’s situation?” And you can model for your kids helping others, doing frequent small acts of kindness.

Books are also a great resource. For instance, there’s a book I read recently with my kids, Wonder by R.J Palacio. It’s about a boy with a serious facial disfigurement, he looks different in an alarming way and he’s entering the world of middle school. The book is intense, not maudlin, and it tells the story from the perspective of different characters, not just the boy himself — you get the point of view of everyone involved. Reading books like this with your kids is a great way to help them understand other peoples’ experiences.

What surprised you most in your reporting for Sticks and Stones?

I was struck again and again by how often the initial reporting of a bullying situation turned out to be wrong. That’s why it’s important to be skeptical when you hear about a bullying incident in the news. Just last night, for example, I heard someone on CNN say that Adam Lanza [the Newtown shooter] was bullied. I’ve seen no evidence of that anywhere, but I think we’re in a cultural moment where bullying is in the public consciousness, so people quickly jump to that conclusion, and it’s not always the case.

Share on Pinterest