Can We Really Stop Bullying?

Emily Yoffe interviews Emily Bazelon about her new book, Sticks and Stones.

What do you do if your kid is a bully?

What do you do if your kid is a bully?

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy is Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon’s in-depth look at bullying and a blueprint for how to reduce it. She tells compelling stories from the perspective of both the bullied and the bullies, explores the new world of online bullying, looks deep into the academic literature, and provides answers to the problem. She discussed it all with Slate’s “Dear Prudence” columnist, Emily Yoffe.

Emily Yoffe: What was the most surprising thing your reporting turned up?

Emily Bazelon: One piece of research in particular helped me understand why kids bully—how that can be a rational, if unfortunate, choice. Robert Faris at U.C. Davis mapped social networks in a few different high schools, and he showed that kids behaving aggressively—not physically, but socially—use gossip, exclusion, and attacks on other kids’ reputations to help themselves move up the social ladder. It turned out that for most kids, it didn’t work, in terms of increasing status, to attack someone much weaker. But if you picked on someone near you in the social hierarchy who was a possible rival, that often had a social benefit. It is sort of depressing but important to understand, I think. People ask: Why do kids act this way? But kids are doing what anyone would do: maximizing their social influence. So then the question is: How do we upend this?

Yoffe: Is it even realistic to think you can upend it? Aren’t you talking about a pervasive part of human nature?

Bazelon: Aggression is endemic to human nature, and we wouldn’t want to stamp it out. Kids are not always going to be nice to one another. But bullying is a certain kind of harmful aggression. The agreed-upon definition is that it’s verbal or physical aggression that is repeated over time and involves a power differential. It’s one kid lording it over another, and because it persists, the victim can find it particularly devastating. We can help kids realize this kind of aggression is not the norm, and in the end, it’s not the best way to advance socially, either.

One school I write about did a survey, and the results showed that 90 percent of students there did not exclude other kids at the lunch table. So they put this information on posters around the school, and the incidence of exclusion dropped even further. There’s an analogy here to the campaign against drunk driving. When I was in high school, I felt it was a tiny bit cool to drink and drive. There wasn’t a strong message about how dangerous and wrong it was. But parents, schools, and the media have succeeded in impressing that on kids, and now they are less likely to do it—and the death rate from drunk driving among young people has gone down significantly. There are social problems that seem intractable, but when we put energy into pushing back, we are able to change things.

Yoffe: You write about your own experience being bullied in middle school, when you say your friends “fired” you. Did your parents handle the situation correctly when they told you to ignore the mean girls and make new friends? Or do you now realize there was something else they should have done?

Bazelon: My parents were pretty good. They were clued into what was going on, they didn’t minimize or say I was being silly to be so upset. They gave good advice to make new friends. The notion that you can walk away from a toxic social situation, take yourself out of it, and find a new social group is right, even if it’s hard to do. What my parents didn’t do was ask the school for help. At that time, in the 1980s, I don’t think that would have occurred to many parents. And I probably would have said no if they had wanted to! So in my case, and more tellingly in the case of another girl in my class I write about, who really was bullied, there was no suggestion that this was the school’s affair. If this were happening to my kid, I would try to find someone at school to help. But even now the research shows most kids don’t tell adults at school, and sadly those that do report that their situations don’t necessarily improve. That has to change so that the kids who go for help really get it.

Yoffe: Is there a danger in adults getting too involved in this? Have you found that adults can overreact and then make the kids think of themselves as damaged victims?

Bazelon: Yes, and that’s why I think it’s important to use the bullying label sparingly. Lots of psychological literature shows that seeing oneself only as a victim doesn’t help people advance in life. In a well-intentioned effort to help kids treat one another better, we do have to be careful not to overpolice or overprotect them. They have to make mistakes and experience adversity, and we can’t fix everything along the way. In some upper- and middle-class communities, we can veer too far in that direction. But some real mistreatment does get swept under the rug, so I worry about the opposite problem at the same time.

Yoffe: You write at length about how social media, texting, etc. has changed the nature of bullying. Suddenly the record is permanent, everyone can read the nasty things being said. Has social media made kids meaner? Has it enabled bullying the way the Internet gave new life to the spread of child pornography? 

Bazelon: Cyberbullying is mostly a new expression of an old phenomenon. Most kids caught up in it are kids who are also involved in in-person bullying. The cyberbully is not a new creature. And moving online hasn’t caused the rate of bullying to rise, so much as make the meanness feel more prevalent, because it can be 24/7. When kids go home they don’t get a break anymore. Because if they’re going online, they can see what other kids are saying about them at any time, in front of an audience. It can also elevate the meanness. The spoken word is ephemeral, but the written word, once posted, can be permanent and even go viral. Also, the act of posting can block kids’ sense of empathy. They can push send without thinking through the consequences. (Adults can, too.)

The upside is that parents have a chance to monitor what their kids are writing and to get clued in. But that’s tricky, too, of course, because parents have to figure out how much to keep track of their kids online. I don’t think there’s much consensus about that. My own feeling is that it’s best to start off stricter, as your kid gets his first phone or social media account. Explain that you’re overseeing this the way you would any whole new world he is entering. And then you can ease up as he gets the hang of it.

Yoffe: What’s the legacy of the Phoebe Prince story? Are people paying more attention to bullying because of her suicide? Is there recognition that it was prosecutorial overkill to legally blame other students for a complicated and tragic situation—which you did so much to bring to light?

Bazelon: It’s mixed. It’s encouraging and telling that no other criminal prosecutions like the one in South Hadley, Mass., have been brought since then. There have been other suicides linked to bullying, but I have not heard of the heavy-handed use of the criminal justice system in response, so I am encouraged by that. The other thing I think is that generally speaking, the narrative of “bullycide” is not helpful and misleading. These are heartbreaking situations that don’t have a single cause.

Yoffe: If your kid is being bullied, what should you do?

Bazelon: First of all make sure you have all the facts. Sometimes your child is the target, but sometimes it’s more of a two-way conflict, what kids call “drama.” You don’t want to cry wolf, and so you want as much information as you can get. Then, if you’ve concluded that what’s happening really is bullying, you have the facts you need to make your case. One option is to go directly to the parents of the other kids who are involved. That can make sense if you know those parents are sensible and trustworthy. If you don’t know them or you don’t trust them, then it’s better to go to the school. Present as many facts as you can. And give the administrators or guidance counselors you’re talking to the benefit of the doubt: They have a lot going on, so give them a chance to deal with the problem.

Yoffe: What if your kid is the bully?

Bazelon: It’s always the parents’ job to be in their kid’s corner. But being in your child’s corner does not mean making excuses. You need to tell your child the behavior is not helping him and it’s hurting other kids. You have to be on top of it and send the message that this isn’t OK. You express that you love him but you want to help him figure out a way to stop acting like this. In my reporting, I could see a lot of parents in this situation just deciding it’s the other kid’s fault.

Yoffe: Are there essential differences in girl vs. boy bullying styles?

Bazelon: Boys bully girls and boys. Girls tend to only bully girls. We’re fixated on the mean girl image, but boys actually do more of the bullying. Boys tend to be more overt in their expression of aggression. They’re more likely to physically bully. Girls tend to express hostility more indirectly, through exclusion. Rachel Simmons writes that when one girl turns her back on another, it can be the most devastating gesture. That’s because, as she points out, girls tend to turn on their friends more than boys do. In the stories of bullying and cyberbullying that make the news, the focus tends to be on the girls. But when you look into it, there is often a boy in the center who’s actively participating, even though the entire situation is framed as the actions of mean girls.

Yoffe: Do the bullies enjoy it? I get quite a few letters to “Dear Prudence” from adults who look back and regret being bullies and wonder how to make amends.

Bazelon: I think most people do come to regret it. But in the moment, some kids are just thuggish, even if they’re not sociopaths. They get pleasure from taking other kids’ lunch money. Other kids take pride and pleasure in being the popular, manipulative bully, in their enhanced power as the quintessential mean girl. (Although as I was saying, this person can also be a boy.) These kids tend to be hardest for adults to smoke out. To complete my taxonomy, there are also bully-victims—that is, kids who are both bullied and strike out at weaker kids. These tend to be the kids who are the saddest, have the most serious problems, and have the most trouble later in life. For them, bullying is a kind of cry for help.

Yoffe: Of course not every bully outgrows it. We’ve all known of adult bullies in the workplace. So what do people do if they’re the victim of that?

Bazelon: To some degree adults are better at hiding contempt, but not all the time. If you’re stuck in a work environment where you can’t get away from people treating you horribly, it’s extremely distressing. It happened to me in my 20s, and it was really hard to deal with. Get help and support from people outside of work who can just make you feel it’s not you, that you are not, in fact, contemptible. And then you should look for someone at work you can trust to help you strategize about how to make the bullying end. But it’s really hard and the stakes at work can be even higher than at school. And people are never going to have total protection, for example, from mean bosses. Bosses have to be able to express themselves clearly in a negative way. That doesn’t mean anyone should be picked on, but it can be tricky to draw the line. This is a hard one for me to give general advice about—it all comes down to context, like so many dilemmas that your readers bring to you. Thanks for letting me be the one to give the answers!