Battling the bully


First aired on Here and Now (21/02/13)

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Without a doubt, bullying has been a major subject in the public conversation in recent years. With all the news coverage of tragic youth suicides and personal stories emerging through social media, it may often seem like we're in the midst of a bullying epidemic.

In actuality, bullying hasn't necessarily become more rampant, we're just paying better attention, according to journalist Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.

"When you look at the [rate of bullying] over the last 25 years in several different countries, they really haven't risen," she said on Here and Now recently. "Instead, I think we're paying a lot more attention to it because bullying has changed with the advent of the internet."

The square jawed jocks that used to push smaller students into lockers or mean girl cliques who exchange teasing notes have migrated to Facebook and Twitter, where their harassment is much more public. But for the victims of this online bullying, this can be even more challenging to ignore or overcome.

"It can feel prevalent, 24/7, and very hard to escape, and I think that has really caught our attention culturally."

Some will argue that kids will be kids and there will always bullying. Bazelon agrees. But she points out that while kids can be thoughtless and aggressive, bullying is a kind of severe and chronic behavior that shouldn't be viewed as normal. Several studies suggest that the psychological effects of bullying last into adulthood.

sticks-stones-cover-120.jpg"Sometimes adversity is humbling, but also healthy and can help you grow. The problem with bullying is that some kids who really experience it in a more severe and chronic way than I did really have trouble later on so, we can't really just think of this as a growing experience."

She's not naïve by thinking that bullying will ever be completely eliminated, but she does argue that schools and parents could take more significant steps in curbing the culture of it.
"I think that in a lot of schools right now, you get rewarded if you're a kid for being mean, and what I mean by that is you become more popular by bullying other kids."

Bazelon suggests for schools to really get a sense of how students are feeling, perhaps through administering a survey. Educators should also emphasize more that bullying is outlier behavior. And she says parents should make a point to sit down with their kids, especially when giving them a smartphone, for the first time and walking them through the consequences of being able to instantly post their thoughts or reactions.