Sticks and Stones: Changing Our Culture of Teen Bullying

Wed, February 20, 2013

Changing the World, Mothers and Daughters

As the mother of a seventh-grade girl, to say that I’m navigating through the treacherous waters of middle school, bullying, drama and various cyber-issues would be an understatement. Sometimes it feels like I have things under control, but I know that’s just a fantasy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she survives, without too much trauma, what are probably the worst school years of her life.

When it comes to finding advice about how to help our kids with this rough time of their childhoods, with we often turn to our schools or psychologists or social experts — but often, the advice is a collective — That’s just how it is. Kids can be pretty nasty in the middle school years and we just have to knuckle down and get through it the best we can.

Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelon completely disagrees. I was excited to interview her about her new book on all of this, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.

I was especially curious about what prompted her to write this book. After all, bullying isn’t a new topic, and other popular books have addressed have analyzed have covered all that territory. But Bazelon, the mother of two sons, ages ten and 13, told me that there actually is new information we need to consider, especially in our age of living online and the way our kids communicate with each other today. For example, while boys tend to use their aggressive behavior in person, girls infamously use the tools of manipulation and exclusion — things that they can do effectively online. Consider that with the fact that teen girls send almost twice as many text messages in any given day as boys (girls average 90 texts per day while boys averaged 50) and it the world of middle school kids, 21st century technology and the fact that we increasingly live our lives online creates a toxic teen-age world, especially for those who are the targets of bullies.

Schools try to do their best to educate our children in the language of empathy and the pitfalls of online tools, in efforts to bring cyber-bullying under control. But parents we need to keep in mind that as today’s schools are asked to do increasing amounts of things with fewer resources, we, as parents, have to step up our accountability for our children’s social and emotional well-being. What becomes a real gray area is when children engage in cyber-bullying at home, but it has an impact on children’s well-being in school. Often, administrators and teachers throw up their hands and say there is nothing they can do if behavior happens outside of school. However, Bazelon points out that if there is actual disruption at school as a result of the online bullying, parents can ask schools to step in.

What was surprising to Bazelon, an admitted skeptic about whether we’re experiencing an epidemic of bullying, is she didn’t realize just how serious the problem is until she saw the research on the long-term psychological impact that the new world of bullying has on our kids.

Bazelon sees a need for a new national movement, one that’s not so different from the one launched decades ago that so many of us see as a completely logical thing today — Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We need concrete strategies and mass media involvement to make that change.

While I’m not quite finished reading Sticks and Stones, I was struck by a simple fact that many of us discount:

“The depersonalized featured of technology can exacerbate cruelty,” even though the roots are in the real world, not the virtual one.

Does any of this resonate for you and your family experience? While it’s hard to separate our own teen experiences from those of our kids today, Sticks and Stones serves as a very important reminder and call to action — for parents and schools — that we can’t cling to the theory that kids have survived bullying since the dawn of time, so there’s no need to do anything differently in 2013. There is a need for a sea change in how we sail through the cyber-world of our tweens and teens, and Bazelon gives the road map of how to do that.

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