Can We End Bullying? Interview with “Sticks and Stones” Author Emily Bazelon

24 days ago

With a ten-year-old son who’s going to start middle school next fall, the topic of teen bullying scares me to death. Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelon is also the mother of two boys, aged 10 and 13, and her new book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Charcter and Empathy covers her years of research into teen bullying and what can be done about it.

Image Credit: Random House

For her research, Bazelon followed three young teens – Monique, Jacob, and Phoebe – who were being taunted at school and online by their peers. I’ll warn you, the case studies were painful to read. In all three cases, the kids attempted to follow common advice about reporting bullying, working through school authorities, and such; yet, the bullying dragged on and one of the stories ended with a victim’s suicide.

I interviewed Bazelon over the phone earlier this week, and she stressed that studies show only 10-25% of kids experience this kind of bullying—but the bullying has taken on a round-the-clock nature, because of the Internet. “The rates haven’t risen,” Bazelon explains, “It used to be that you got a break when you went home.”

As a blogger who spends a lot of time online and on social media, I was especially interested in the book’s focus on cyberbullying and who’s responsible for preventing it. As part of her research, Bazelon visited the Facebook headquarters to see how Zuckerberg and company deal with reports of inappropriate behavior. Hint: it’s both more thorough and more buckshot than you’d imagine. One of book’s calls to action is that Facebook, and its nastier cousin Formspring, could do more prevent cyberbullying and work with school authorities in doing so. In our interview, Bazelon elaborated upon that, saying,

“Facebook or Instagram could have a space for younger children, where they encourage kids to share less, companies could work with schools and consumers.”

She cites MySpace (anybody still there?) as an example of a social networking site that has a hotline and an email dropbox for school administrators to report problems.

Starting with younger children is key, as both Bazelon’s research and the anecdotes she shared with me from her own family show that bullying hits the young teens and middle schoolers the hardest. Again, I wanted to find out what Bazelon suggested that parents like myself could do. Her advice was both old-fashioned and forward thinking.

Foremost, parents can control what access to technology they give their kids. After all, 12-year-olds usually aren’t buying iPhones with their allowance money. In the book, research by BlogHer danah boyd is cited as showing that two-thirds of underage kids on Facebook had their parents’ help in creating their accounts. Bazelon says her own 13-year-old son has a simple cell phone that doesn’t access the Internet.

Which is not to say that Bazelon advocates banning your children from going on-line. Instead, she told me about the unconventional way she’s helping her teenager test the waters. “This may seem like a crazy idea, but I have a Twitter account with about 15,000 followers,” Bazelon says. “This is a chance for him to practice on my account.” She says kids won’t be as offended if parents edit their tweets on the parental account, as they would be if Mom started censoring the kid’s account. Sort of like Twitter with training wheels.

While there are no cut and dry solutions, there are lots of other things to think about in the book, such as whether we should be reporting bullying as often as we are now prone to do, and how to differentiate between bullying and simply kids being kids. Mostly, Bazelon hopes her book will start up a bigger conversation about bullying and the importance of creating empathy for others.

Have your kids experienced bullying? What do you think of Emily Bazelon's suggestions?

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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