The Rapidian

Sticks and Stones Author Speaks on Bullying, Changing The 'Norm'

Emily Bazelon speaks on bullying in today's culture at GRCC Diversity Series.

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Emily Bazelon’s book is available at the local library or where ever books are sold. 

/Emily Bazelon

/Emily Bazelon

As part of the Diversity Center's 19th year, Grand Rapids Community College welcomed Slate Senior Editor and New York Times Magazine Contributing Writer, Emily Bazelon to the Diversity Series to speak about her book on bullying in today’s culture.

The invitation was particularly timely given the recent surge in reports of cyberbullying and suicides by children and teenagers who were victims of these types of attacks.  Fountain Street Church hosted the October 23 event where Bazelon talked open and honestly with the audience about her extensive research on bullying.

Bazelon’s book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, follows three youths who were bullied.  Monique McClain, an African-American middle schooler is teased for her hairstyle choice.  Words turned physical and McClain ends up battling depression and switching schools to escape the abuse.

Jacob Lasher, a gay teen, comes out to endure teasing and ends up retaliating with a legal suit.  Finally, Phoebe Prince, an Irish transplant, is constantly tormented by fellow students in a suburban Massachusetts town. With a deep sigh, Bazelon revealed that Prince committed suicide.

The book works through these children’s lives by telling their stories, while also examining our culture, the treatment and punishment of those involved with bullying.

There is not one definition of bullying that fits into Bazelon’s conversation so she provided a few for the audience to consider: “physical or verbal abuse sustained over time with a power imbalance,” or “going on a campaign to make another miserable.”  Whichever definition that the audience prefered, she was adamant that bullying is “a problem that is worth talking about and a problem of magnitude and size that is worth tackling.”

Though the long held image of the school yard bully has seen its day and rates of violent victimization have gone down, Bazelton pointed out that the ways a person is bullied has morphed over the last twenty years. Bullies now resort more often to emotional and psychological targeting. This leaves it up to children and parents of the previous generation to understand and adapt to this changing terrain. Now, children must be on the lookout for mean girls, internet attacks, and even previously bullied children.

Bazelon describes these actions as cries for help. Often children who bully are imitating violence they see at home or have been attacked with at school. They can be manipulative and act under the radar. Bazelton emphasizes that bullies lack empathy. She also reiterates that more of the episodes are happening online.

“Social media is a new platform for being attacked,” Bazelon says. The internet is faceless, permanent, and exposes the child being bullied to a much larger audience than a small group of kids under the monkey bars. When children use the internet to hurt others they don’t see the other person’s reactions, it's anonymous, impulsive and can make a person feel like they are being attacked 24/7.

In her research, Bazelon found that when her subjects were attacked online and they knew about it, it was hard not to look at what was being written about them. The old adage of just ignoring it would gnaw at them. Responding to those comments online tended to have increasingly negative and prolonged consequences for the bullied children.

Bazelon also warned of the potential pitfalls in anti-bullying efforts; stigmatizing children that really need help who have been labeled as a bully, removing independence from children in general, unnecessary policing by parents and schools, and even harmful criminal punishment instead of empathy and understanding treatment.

“We need to use this label more sparingly," she added. "Nobody actually wants to be labeled a bully.”  Bazelon goes on to explain that a child’s brain is plastic and can be molded from experience to experience, but once a child has been labeled a “bully” it can redirect their actions and redefine their self-image. 

She asked by a show of hands how many people in the audience had been bullied, how many have bullied, and finally, how many have witnessed a bully in action. Most of the audience raised their hands, if tentatively, on each question. Bazelon explained that there is a power to the bystander, and most of us have been one at some point.  Bullying “almost always takes place in front of an audience, twenty percent of the time a bystander intervenes, but when they do they can stop it fifty percent of the time.”

Bazelon said she found that children who are victimized were encouraged if someone reached out to them either through a small ‘are you alright,’ to big dramatic interventions the next time. “You don’t necessarily have to be a hero to make a difference."

“It’s tempting to want to blame kids,” Bazelon agreed, but she calls on parents, schools and all of us as bystanders to make the effort to curb bullying. Throughout the evening, she stressed the power of empathy, encouraging parents to teach their children empathy at home, not only with actions but also with books.  In a recent study published in Science, two researchers found that after reading fiction, readers scored higher on empathic tests than those who had read serious non-fiction or nothing at all. 

“A parent’s main job needs to be instituting empathy.” When researching for her book she was asked by a Harvard psychologist if we have reached the point in society where we are so preoccupied with happiness and individual achievement that we have forgotten to instill empathy in our children towards other members of society.  This thought provoking question pushed Bazelon to examine what parents can do.

Character learning is another tool that can be used at home or at school. Suspension and criminal prosecution, Bazelton claims, are not usually effective means of punishment. Social and emotional learning that uses caring curricula, a reward system, and creates an organizational (or family) culture where children feel a sense of belonging have been more effective ways to combat these attacks.  When children belong to a community they want to protect it and treat the community as their own. 

In addition, parents need to work through bullying episodes with their children. Kids need a break from what’s going on. Get them out of the house, off the computer, and help them look for new friends. Bazelon reminded the whole room “that people only have the power to bring you down when you let them.” Parents should be instilling that self-empowering idea in their children.

“Kids can sometimes come up with the best ideas to manage this new world they are entering into,” Bazelon noted. “Delete Day” is one such idea. Prompted by teens at The Mary Louis Academy of Jamaica Estates in Queens, New York, teens vowed to delete friends, groups, photos, formspring pages; anything that didn’t show dignity or empathy to others.

Bullies, the bullied, and people who engage in both have been shown to do poorly in school, suffer from substance abuse both during and in the future, have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. Early preventative care and empathetic training is helpful to combating these issues, but once bullying has occurred it is up to all involved to redirect these hurtful words and actions into learning lessons to move forward.

Addressing the outcomes of bullying, Emily Bazelon left her audience with a final message: “It really is on everyone to change this social norm.” 

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