In January of 2010, a teenage girl named Phoebe Prince walked home from school, let herself into the family apartment and hung herself in a stairwell. Prince, who’d recently moved from Ireland, been bullied for months at school, and the bullying continued even after her death, with vicious commentary on her Facebook page. The case drew national attention and a fresh round of hand-wringing about the casual cruelty of teenagers, and the continuing failure of adults to stop it. Emily Bazelon, a reporter at Slate, distinguished herself from the rest of the journalistic pack with a combination of in-depth reporting and hard-headed analysis. Now Bazelon, who has two sons, has written a book about the culture of bullying, Sticks and Stones. She answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Cook: Why did you set out to write a book about bullying?
Bazelon: Four years ago, I noticed a lot of news stories raising the alarm about “cyberbullying,” treating it as brand new, alarming, and epidemic. I wondered if that was true. I started working on a series for Slate, where I’m on staff, and I realized pretty quickly that 1) there is no epidemic and 2) cyberbullying is mostly a new expression of a familiar behavior. It’s very much related to bullying that takes place in person. At the same time, moving online changes the dynamics of bullying—and what the experience feels like for targets—in important ways. So I set out to explore that.
Reporting on bullying connected to my longstanding interest in the role empathy plays in our lives, and in what makes kids resilient. I have two sons, who are now 10 and 13, so I also think about all of this as a mother—how to build character, what limits to set on technology, and other questions along those lines.
Cook: How big of a problem is bullying?
Bazelon: Bullying isn’t an epidemic, as you sometimes hear, and it’s also not on the rise, according to the studies that have tracked it over the past 25 years. But bullying does feel more pervasive for a lot of kids when it happens, because it often extends to the Web, which they can access 24/7. Going home from school used to give kids a break. That’s often no longer true. And now that bullying takes place on social networking sites, it is more lasting, more visible, more viral. That’s how the problem has changed over the last decade.
Cook: What do you think the public most misunderstands about the mind of the bully?
Bazelon: I think people typically have two images of bullies. The first (a boy) is the thug who steals your lunch money—Nelson on the Simpsons. The second is the Mean Girl who uses her social power to turn the school against you. Those bullies exist, in more three-dimensional, non-cartoon versions. But they’re not the whole picture. For example, there are also kids, known as bully-victims, who are both victims and bullies at different moments. They often have serious psychological problems, and for them, bullying is a cry for help. Even if that’s not true for the other types of bullies.
Cook: What are the links between bullying behavior and empathy?
Bazelon: In the moment, kids who act like bullies can seem frighteningly devoid of empathy—they freeze out those feelings, in a way that’s chilling. But in fact, for almost all kids, that is a temporary lapse: They are capable of empathy underneath the cold façade. One girl who was being mean to one of the main characters in my book (who is a 7th grader in Connecticut named Monique) made me cringe when she said at one point, “If she killed herself, it would be her own insecure problem.” But then later that same girl said, “I feel like Monique was just depressed, because she didn’t have a lot of friends. I could see that she’d walk in the hallways with her head down.” So she did understand how Monique felt, when she let herself.
Cook: People often have in mind a sense that certain kids are likely to be targets of bullies. What is actually known about this?