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‘Sticks and Stones’ Takes on the Culture of Bullying in School and Online

Sticks and stones, bullying, cyberbully

Emily Bazelon’s “Sticks and Stones” examines bullying in the age of social media.

School bullies are nothing new. They’re the stuff of storybooks, movies, TV shows and after school specials. What is new is the way classmates can bully each other. Through Facebook and other social media platforms, publicly humiliating and ganging up on someone can happen relatively anonymously, relentlessly, off school property and without having to look anyone in the face.

The Wild West aspect of the Internet has created some complicating factors for schools, parents and social media companies themselves, all of whom have some role to play in responding to cyber-bullying. The exact role, however, is still being worked out.

Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon’s new book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, explores some of the complicating factors the Internet brings to the bullying dynamic, as well as looking into bullying in general. A fascinating history of research on bullying, this book also unpacks the issues around this particular act of aggression by following three cases, one of which ended notoriously with the suicide of Hadley, Massachusetts freshman Phoebe Prince.

I interviewed Bazelon about the Prince case and also about what parents should know when it comes to bullying, cyber or otherwise.

It’s a really great book with some very important perspective and research on bullying. Among the take-aways is that bullying isn’t always a good vs. evil with a perpetrator-victim dynamic. You were the first (maybe only) journalist to bring more nuance actually, to bring real facts to the Phoebe Prince/South Hadley Nine story, which was mostly reported and blogged about and and likely still remembered as “Irish Girl, Mercilessly Bullied at New School, Commits Suicide.” When did you first realize there was more to the story?

I had started a series for Slate concentrating on cyber-bullying, when the Prince story broke in January 2010 — it was fairly near my house. I was responding to the same stories everyone was reading — it started with a column in the Boston Globe, “The untouchable mean girls.” I had this assumption that this was a hostile scary high school with a pack of bullies that had tormented Phoebe Prince. I was curious what the environment was like. My assumption was that I was going to go in and write this story where all had gone awry. I talked to a journalism class there, and they were like, “That’s not what happened.” It’s not that they had an alternative simple story to offer. They also were not saying bullying didn’t happen at their school. But the notion that it was so black and white? That didn’t resonate with those kids. So I started going back and talking to more kids to try and understand the perspective of those kids. It wasn’t easy to contradict those facts that were already out there. Once national TV had picked up on the story and run with it, how are you going to prove that it’s wrong?

Does this make you look differently at other suicides attributed to bullying?

What I have decided is that these stories are like crime there are lots of competing perspectives. You have to dig around for the facts to get to the bottom of what happened. One of the main points in the book is that you can’t always trust what you’re reading in the news the next day. Schools can’t always talk to the media because of student confidentiality, which I think is sometimes unfortunate since that leaves others to interpret and fill in the blanks.

Parents people use situations like these to inform how they react in their own lives. When watching and reading about these and other horrific stories in which bullying is blamed, what questions should we be asking ourselves?

If you’re a parent who is involved in a situation like this, you need to get all the facts. Sometimes, what you thought was one-sided bullying was more two-way. Of course, you always need to be your child’s advocate. But you need the most complete version of the story to be a good advocate for your kids, so you need to find out the entire story. You need to have the facts marshaled if it turns out to be bullying.

Jacob’s story, another school bullying situation,  was particularly bothersome. What stood out is how the adults in charge of the school failed him, ostensibly because they didn’t want to embrace his openness as a gay student.

For me the saddest part of the story is the school’s failure to embrace the Gay-Straight Alliance that another, older student tried to start some years before. They kept the group’s picture out of the yearbook. It’s heartbreaking to me. There’s so much evidence that GSA acts as a buffer for LGBT kids. Their refusal was indicative of the problems the administration had in helping kids like Jacob.

Monique’s situation was different. Monique was getting bullied on the bus, the bully couldn’t be stopped, so the mother requested a transfer to another public school, which the administration would not approve. Things escalated. Essentially, the involvement of adults made things worse.

The school board and school superintendent did not take her appeals to heart. There was a class thing working in this instance Monique’s mother couldn’t afford to send her to a private school. As a parent, it’s a totally reasonable thing to take your kid out of a toxic environment. To me, it seemed wrong that there would only be one school in the entire state that she would be allowed to send her child to.

Your peek behind the curtains at Facebook is fascinating! You went to find out how the company responds to bullying happens on the site and what happens when users get reported. What comes across is that they’re trying to be good comply with laws but for all their ingenuity, they’re kind of failing. It’s amazing to me that there are actually little worker mice (not nearly enough, it seems) manually going through complaints and handling them. We can put a man on the moon, can get over a billion to network socially but this stumps them?

I actually have a piece coming out in the Atlantic [tomorrow] talking about a couple of solutions a guy at MIT has come up with. Facebook has continued to try to find solutions, and they’re working on their responses with psychologists from Yale and Berkley to refine the response flows. What the psychologists did was they sat down the children and asked what they wanted it to feel like when they made a complaint. So they’re starting to role out a more tailored set of responses, including the idea of trying to encourage the kids to talk to an adult they trust, which is one of the responses they’ve had for a while. I also think Facebook has a great deal of influence with teenagers — they could use that for the good. Facebook found in its own research that kids only need to be told once to cut it out. They have an incredibly low recidivism rate. Kids are influenced by the norms Facebook is setting.

I think Facebook could also could work directly with schools. As far as I know they’ve done nothing like that.

Also, the “boob test”? You wrote about how quickly each complaint is considered at Facebook — it’s a matter of seconds and most of it is based on gut and subjective clues. So when a girl is reported for being an underage user, the person at Facebook might decide, based on the size of her boobs, whether she’s truly 13 [the minimum age for users]. Any equivalent for judging the age of boys?

Ha! Not that I’m aware of. But I didn’t see any boys getting reviewed when I was there.

For that matter, is there a boy/girl difference in bullying online or off?

There is some difference, but remember, this is all about averages and statistics — there are always exceptions and many of them. Anyway, the averages show that girls tend to socialize more online, boys spend more time playing games online. So for example, girls send, on average, 90 text messages a day vs the average of 50 boys send. Social media use higher among girls.

I was also fascinated with, and kind of encouraged by, the studies that concluded the more physical freedom a child has, the less time they spend on social network sites. There’s a wonderful solution right there!

It totally resonates. I don’t want to say kids should never be using technology. There are plenty of good uses of social media — particularly if you’re an isolated kid.  But the idea that it’s so much of how kids are socializing. Looking yesterday at the 2012 Pew survey about the mode of communication teens use for socializing: 63 percent is text messaging. Then on the list is 35 percent face-to-face. Social media messaging is 30 percent and it’s the only category that is rising. Social media messaging isn’t the only way kids are communicating, but combining that with texting it’s overwhelmingly through technology.

What are the three most important things parents can do now to be part of the cyber-bullying solution?

1. Be aware of what your kids are doing online. Walk them through the first steps — don’t give them a smart phone and expect them to figure out how to behave themselves. Of course, it’s also important not to hover they’ll figure out pretty quickly how to push you away. You can monitor by checking text messages or making sure you have passwords. It’s important that parents have an oversight role.

2. Think about whether there are demands we have of social media companies that we should be organizing ourselves around and asking for. As an example, on Facebook, there’s a privacy default setting. A couple of years ago, that default setting was to public but users complained and it changed.

3. Face-to-face contact is important for learning how to act socially and learning empathy. Pushing send, there’s no tone of voice, no face what gets communicated can be different than what was intended. It sounds silly, but it’s important for kids to have lots of social experiences, not just online, but actually face-to-face.

SOURCE: Random House

MORE ON BABBLE: Bully director Lee Hirsch on his troubling film that captivated audiences nationwide

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