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?  

Bazelon: Boys who are targets of bullying tend to have less physical strength than other boys, and girls who are targets tend to be more submissive. Also, bullies often pick lower-status targets they already don’t like. Sometimes they trump up a provocation, but sometimes the conflict starts for a reason that feels real to them—even if a neutral observer wouldn’t see it that way.

Cook: At one point, you make a parallel between fighting cholera outbreaks and preventing bullying. Can you explain this? 

Bazelon: In 1854, a doctor named John Snow figured out the source of a cholera outbreak in London: Contaminated water that people were drawing from one particular pump in Soho. He persuaded the city authorities to remove the pump handle, and the spread of the disease immediately subsided. That story led to a key public health insight: With the right kind of intervention, you can break the hold of a mass problem. And that helps the people who still get sick, too, because as the number of patients becomes more manageable, it’s easier for them to get the care they need.

A group of researchers at the University of Oregon applied this insight to improving school culture in the 1990s. The idea is that in a school with a lot of behavior problems, if you can find the intervention that turns chaotic hallways and classrooms into orderly ones, most students will respond accordingly. And the kids who continue to act out will often be the ones with more serious problems, and since the school no longer has to deal with an epidemic of misbehavior, it can more easily concentrate on getting them the attention they’re asking for. The University of Oregon team started a framework for addressing school climate, called PBIS (Positive Behavioral and Intervention Supports), which has shown success in reducing bullying.

Cook: How do they intervene?

Bazelon: PBIS is all about strengthening the connections between students and adults, for starters by building calm and order. Schools start by looking closely at the number of and reasons for referrals to the principal’s office—a key indicator of the health of a school, according to George Sugai, one of the framework’s creators. The idea is to figure out why exactly kids are getting referred for discipline and also where the bad behavior occurs. With the answers in hand, schools can address “hot spots” and then teachers can focus on students’ positive behavior—the ordinary things they do right during the day.PBIS wasn’t designed to address bullying directly, but a 2012 study by a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins found that teachers in PBIS schools reported less bullying and peer rejection than teachers in schools without PBIS.

Cook: What is known about the long-term harm that bullying does — and how to recover? 

Bazelon: For both kids who bully and kids who are targets, bullying has been linked to low academic performance, ongoing emotional problems, and (for bullies) drinking and drug problems, and a higher crime rate. Especially for LGBT kids, there is some evidence that bullying increases the risk of suicidal thinking and suicide attempts, though it’s important to say that most kids who are bullied, or who act like bullies, do not become suicidal.

In terms of recovery, that really depends on the particular child and the level of bullying he or she has experienced. Some kids recover with support from home and at school—a simple thing like changing a bus route or taking a break from a social network site can help a lot. In fact, for many kids, there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger—they do have the capacity for resilience. Other kids need much more intensive support, like counseling. The key is to look closely at each case individually, and talk to kids about how they’re feeling. We’re not very good at this point at predicting when an experience with bullying, however unpleasant, helps build character, and when it leaves kids seriously vulnerable.

Cook: What are the best tools for parents? For kids? 

Bazelon: For parents, here is a list of resources I’ve put together. And here’s a list for kids!

The essential point is this: The most important thing we can do about bullying, as a society, is to foster empathy and resilience in kids. This is a key insight at the heart of every good bullying prevention or character education effort. Most kids do feel or can learn to feel empathy and remorse. It’s our job to help them find that capacity within themselves, and build on it. And without minimizing the devastating impact bullying can have on some kids, most recover from it. We need to remember that kids have to confront some adversity, and learn to roll with it, in order to grow.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.