October 6, 2014
We often view bullying as an interpersonal phenomenon. It’s something that happens between two kids. One kid bullies another kid, or maybe even several other kids. But peer aggression goes beyond the bully and the bullied.
In Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon offers a highly nuanced view of the social and behavioral context of bullying. Emphasis here is on context. Rather than focusing on just kids and their parents, Bazelon also examines law, technology, school administration, and the responsibilities of peers who witness acts of peer aggression.
Tough questions, no easy answers
In addition to addressing the larger context of bullying, Bazelon poses challenging questions:
“One of the lessons of this book is that kids often bully because they stand to gain by it, in terms of social status. Maybe they’re after a laugh from another kid they want to impress, or induction into a clique; maybe they want to publicly distance themselves from a friend they sense is now seen as a loser. How can families and schools dismantle that kind of informal reward system? How do you convince kids that they can do well by doing good?”
These are difficult questions, especially when considered against the backdrop of real-world school environments and our status-conscious popular culture.
The healing power of friendship
When we confront the complexities of bullying, it’s easy to forget that there are small ways for us to make a big impact in a person’s life. One of the best aspects of Bazelon’s book is the reminder of the enduring power of friendship. Even a simple act of kindness can be protective against the effects of bullying:
“In one important survey, high school students who’d been bullied were asked to describe the best thing another student had done to help them, and victims consistently mentioned peers who’d called them at home or spent time with them after they’d been mocked. One thirteen-year-old wrote of a friend who didn’t desert her, ‘It made me feel more confident that I would be able to keep being myself and not let this ruin my life.’”
Bystanders are often reluctant to intervene in a bullying situation. They fear injury or reprisal. But there are easy and “cheap” ways, in terms of social currency, for them to offer support and kindness to a peer without putting themselves at risk. Something as simple as sending a text message or checking in with someone at school or even after school can be very helpful to a peer who’s hurting.
Is technology to blame?
Bazelon takes a pretty harsh view of technology, in particular of social networking platforms like Facebook. She quotes the late researcher Clifford Nass:
“Face-to-face contact is the best way to learn to read other peoples’ emotions. It’s how kids learn empathy. So it’s as if the in-person socializing is the healthy food, and Facebook is the empty calories. It’s like junk food, and the more of it kids have, the less time they may have for the healthy stuff.”
Bazelon argues that Facebook should be doing more to combat cyberbullying. Fortunately, in the past couples of year, Facebook has been doing some thoughtful work on this issue, partnering with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. They’re testing their ideas here, and I encourage you to take a look.
When it comes to bullying, there are no simple answers or magic bullets, but Bazelon’s work provides an important service. By clarifying the social and behavioral complexities of bullying, she orients parents, educators, and technologists to the landscape of relevant issues, putting them in better position to find and explore solutions to this vexing issue.