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Hard Wired


March 1, 2013

On the evolution of Internet bullying, resilience of underdogs, and the promise of today’s teens.

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Image by Nina Subin

Kids can be cruel. For generations, this was seen as an unfortunate fact of life. Adults advised the targets of adolescent nastiness to try not to dwell on it, to let it roll off their backs.

As Emily Bazelon writes in her new book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, this all changed in 1999 when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School wielding a couple of semiautomatic weapons. Klebold and Harris’ rampage resulted in thirteen dead, two dozen more injured, and a country left struggling to understand what exactly had gone wrong.

Bazelon, a Slate senior editor and contributor to the New York Times Magazine, as well as a trained lawyer, writes in her prologue, “Harris and Klebold weren’t themselves targets of bullying (or known bullies). But,” she continues, “when a subsequent nationwide investigation revealed that most kids who turn into school shooters have previously felt persecuted, bullied, or threatened, the lesson was driven home: to brush off bullying was to court disaster… ”

The intervening years have seen forty-nine states enact laws that directly address bullying. Still, we are far from solving the problem of cruelty between kids. The intricacies of bullying are complex: there’s so much nuance in the way something is said or received that it’s often near impossible for parents and teachers to parse what happens between kids. What’s more, says Bazelon, the situation has shape-shifted with the preponderance of children using the Internet.

“Coming home from school was no longer a refuge from torment: you could always check Facebook or Twitter to see what other kids were saying about you, and a bully could find you on IM if he missed you that day in the hall,” writes Bazelon.

She has made a career out of shining light on the stories of those who have overcome adversity. For the New York Times Magazine, she’s written about girls who survived sexual abuse and victims of child pornography who are seeking retribution from the consumers of pornography. In Sticks and Stones, she uses the experiences of three adolescents as lenses through which to understand the culture of bullying.

There’s Monique, a seventh grader from Middletown, Connecticut, who unwittingly showed up for the first day of school with the same hairstyle as one of the older girls. Her transgression brings the wrath of the older girls, who embark on a months-long campaign of unrelenting name calling and harassment.

There is Jacob, who is jeered and physically assaulted—pushed down the stairs, and, in one of the most distressing scenes in the book, jumped on and mock raped by a classmate—for proudly acting on his impulse to gender bend.

And then there is Flannery, who, along with five other students from South Hadley High School in western Massachusetts, faced criminal charges in relation to the suicide of classmate.

Flannery’s case especially highlights how difficult it can be to understand what happens between kids. First, there’s the question of what constitutes bullying: Is name calling on one occasion bullying? What about two? Or ten? Second, is there a causal relationship between bullying and self-harm? Can bullying alone cause someone to commit suicide?

I discussed these questions and more with Bazelon over the phone.

Katherine Dykstra for Guernica

Guernica: What purpose does shedding light on resilience serve in your work?

There’s something wonderfully unpredictable about the human spirit, so I hope that is one of the messages of my work.

Emily Bazelon: It gives people a sense of what’s possible. Inequalities in our society can feel like intractable, hopeless problems, and people who are less privileged can feel like they’re stuck. I think my work is an effort to combat that by saying, “No, people do rise above their circumstances.” There’s something wonderfully unpredictable about the human spirit, so I hope that is one of the messages of my work.

Guernica: Does that motivation come from your personal life?

Emily Bazelon: I have been a very lucky person. I had a stable, middle class upbringing with loving parents, so I actually think I’m interested in people who have more dramatic stories than my own.

Guernica: What brought you to the subject of bullying?

Emily Bazelon: My initial interest had to do with being a creature of the web myself. I had a sense, from being online, that kids were fully in that space and that it was a new form of socializing. I wondered how that was going to play out for them emotionally.

Guernica: You write in your book that the Internet hasn’t actually increased instances of bullying, despite what one might think.

Emily Bazelon: We don’t have any evidence that the number of bullies has exploded. It’s more that [the Internet] may be taking conflicts that are already playing out and making them worse for the kids who are targets. There has always been a minority of kids who are cruel, who lack empathy or act as if they lack empathy at this time in their lives. But now they have this whole new tool that takes away the break kids used to get when they came home from school.

I remember from my own experience of eighth grade that when I felt really excluded and I went home at the end of the day, I was sad but I didn’t feel tormented. It wasn’t like I could go onto Facebook and see that all my friends were hanging out without me and didn’t want me to be a part of it. I got some kind of respite. And now there is no respite, because it is so easy to log on or start texting and see what everybody else is doing.

It’s not to say that Desperate Housewives is causing a particular instance of bullying, but I think there is a coarsening of culture right now that seeps into the way kids communicate with each other.

New research is also showing that online communicating leads to less empathy because people aren’t looking each other in the eye. They’re missing the social cues we get from face-to-face contact. It’s easier to distance yourself from how mean you’re being. There’s this weird mismatch where the people who are writing the really mean posts might not realize the damage they’re causing.

But for the people who are reading the posts it can be just as bad as anything that happens in real life: there it is on the page. It’s indelible. It doesn’t go away. You worry about other people seeing it; you can return to it and read it a million times and make yourself more and more upset. So there’s a way that the mode of communication can make the whole thing seem less serious to the people who are doing it and more serious to the people who are targeted.

Guernica: I read the article you wrote for the New York Times Magazine on the victims of child pornography seeking retribution from consumers of pornography. It seems that the Internet enables adult violence against kids in addition to bullying between children. How does your work on violence, kids, and the Internet intersect with what you reported in that piece?

Emily Bazelon: The Internet can be a place that has an enormous amount of fun, helpful, cool, exciting stuff, but it also has a dark side. My book and that piece are about different aspects of its dark side. But I think that the thing that connects them is the idea of resilience. I see the piece about Amy and Nicole as full of hope because they are doing amazingly well. I think that theme holds true in my book as well.

Guernica: Do you think that bullying is, or has become, a part of adult culture? I think of Glenn Beck. Is he an adult bully?

Emily Bazelon: I feel it’s useful to limit the definition of bullying. The definition I use is an academic one that comes from this guy Dan Olweus—he’s the grandfather of bullying research. His definition, which is pretty standard in research, is to talk about bullying as verbal or physical abuse or harassment that’s repeated and involves a power imbalance. Olweus found, and others have confirmed since then, that his definition represents a kind of meanness that kids often find very damaging.

[Nuance is] not the first move we make as a society when we’re absorbing a new idea.

The other thing that is useful about [that definition] is it prevents us from turning any form of aggression into bullying, which is important because a bullying label becomes useless once it is applied to everything. So when I see the kind of cultural aggression you’re talking about with Glenn Beck—or, if you’re on the right you could use the example of a very aggressive questioner on the left, like Keith Olbermann—I don’t think of them as bullies. I think of them as people who are being aggressive, and sometimes overly so. But they don’t necessarily have more power than the people they’re questioning. They’re not doing it over and over again, and it’s not personal in the same way that I think bullying is.

Guernica: Do you think that the term bully is overused?

Emily Bazelon: Absolutely. It is thrown around all the time. It’s not crazy to think of cultural figures as bullies, since what they do feels aggressive in a way that lords over someone or makes the other person uncomfortable. So they are related. When I talked to teenagers about this behavior, they talk about certain TV shows they watch or ways they see people communicate online or off that are full of aggression. They see people not giving someone the benefit of the doubt, or being harsh, and I think they are in some ways affected by that. It’s not to say that Desperate Housewives is causing a particular instance of bullying, but I think there is a coarsening of culture right now that seeps into the way kids communicate with each other. Even if we can’t exactly put our finger on the cause and effect, it’s there.

Guernica: What do we as a society get from seeing a clear victim and perpetrator in cases of bullying, despite the fact that these cases are usually very nuanced?

Emily Bazelon: Black and white is easier. Black and white means we can take a position of moral outrage, and we don’t really have to think much more about it. You can point the finger at someone and blame them and feel righteous about doing it. Particularly when stories go viral, online or on TV, we tend to lose the nuance. The whole reason the story is appealing to us on that level is that it’s iconic in some way, or it symbolizes some ill in the culture that we’re trying to put our finger on. In those moments, when there seems to be a clear good guy and a clear bad guy, the media and the audience tend to run with that narrative. Sometimes people don’t want nuance. They don’t want something to be more complicated.

Guernica: Does thinking in terms of clear good and evil makes us feel better about ourselves?

Emily Bazelon: I think on some level it can, even if that is misinformed and a bad idea. There are a lot of examples of this in history. It’s scapegoating: you turn on someone and make them an example for a flaw that a lot of us may share or a harm that a lot of people may have taken part in. With bullying, there is usually some degree of wrongdoing. It’s not like the kids who were cruel to Phoebe Prince didn’t do anything wrong. Some of them really did cause trouble in a serious way. Yet the idea that they should go to prison for ten years seems way out of proportion to what they did wrong. But that’s the nuance. I think people can get to that point of view, but it takes time.

With Dharun Ravi[...] it’s important to remember that the way the story broke had to do with some of the misinformation.

We actually saw that in a pretty powerful way in the death of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers. [Nuance is] not the first move we make as a society when we’re absorbing a new idea. But I think you can see it as a later wave of cultural understanding. When that story broke, everyone was very quick to blame Dharun Ravi for Tyler Clementi’s death. There was proximity. The webcam spying, which was really awful, had happened right before Tyler’s death, so it was natural to connect them. And Dharun Ravi really had done something wrong. It was inexcusable what he did. But I don’t think we ever had evidence that the webcam spying caused the suicide.

And over time, as the prison sentence loomed over Ravi’s head, I was struck by the number of people who were saying, “Wait a second, maybe this goes too far.” Then there was no uproar when Dharun Ravi got a very light sentence. I think there was this feeling of “OK, this was a young man who did something wrong, but maybe we don’t need to lock him up for a long period.”

Two years after her son died, Tyler Clementi’s mother was still angry with the student who spied on him, and the other students who didn’t do anything to stop him, but she was also grappling with Tyler’s belief that she’d rejected him–she’d left her church, which preached that homosexuality was a sin. I’m wary of the blaming that we’re quick to do. I think it’s important to think about the different factors that account for why people do things and give them all consideration.

Guernica: Why were we quicker to forgive Dharun Ravi? How are we, as a culture, further along than we were, say, with the South Hadley Six?

Emily Bazelon: Some time has passed. The South Hadley kids were charged in spring 2010. When you think of the whole “cyber bullying” moment as a cultural moment, that was the first time that it happened—and it got a lot of attention. By the time Dharun Ravi went on trial, though, it was February 2012, a whole two years later.

I think the initial impulse to be very punitive can give way to something else as more stories unfold. And there’s a sense that this behavior [the bullying] is not good behavior, but people also realize that it’s relatively common. Enough kids are doing it that people are saying, “Wait a second, maybe these kids should have known that this was wrong and we want to make it clear that this was wrong, but that doesn’t mean that the first kid that gets caught should have to bear this very heavy brunt of punishment.”

I had to tell those stories honestly, and I do think that adults in each of those stories blew it. But the last part of the book, which is more solutions-based, is about schools that are trying to help kids treat each other better.

Also, the story the district attorney told about the South Hadley Six was of a relentless, months-long campaign of bullying. That wasn’t actually true, but that was what she said, so that was the story that got repeated. With Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi, by contrast, it all happened over a few days. When I first heard the story of the South Hadley kids, they sounded like they had been terrorizing their school for a long time. That sounded awful and inexcusable.

With Dharun Ravi, there were two episodes of the webcam spying—the second much worse than the first because it seemed more premeditated. It’s always true with stories that part of the way we understand them is affected by the first wave of attention to them. Then, when you find out that a lot of that was wrong, it’s important to remember that the way the story broke had to do with some of the misinformation.

Guernica: You mention the lawyer in the South Hadley Six. I was struck by the massive failure of adults in schools to help kids who find themselves targeted by bullies, which you describe in your book.

Emily Bazelon: This is a really hard one for me. I had to tell those stories honestly, and I do think that adults in each of those stories blew it. But the last part of the book, which is more solutions-based, is about schools that are trying to help kids treat each other better. They’re putting a lot of energy into that, and a lot of thought and caring, and I think it’s more representative of the whole.

One of my fears about this conversation about bullying is that we’re demanding an enormous amount from schools without thinking about whether they have the resources to carry it out. One of the principals in my book, Sean McElhaney in Maryland, says something like, “We’re raising these kids right alongside their parents,” and I think he’s right. But that’s a huge undertaking.

If we really want schools to do that as the last social institution standing, then we need to think about what they need in order to be good at it—especially when we’re expecting more in terms of academic performance. I stand by those stories. I do think it’s important to think about the ways in which administrators and parents and teachers can screw up because that helps us all learn, but I also feel it’s super important not to decide that they’re all uncaring and indifferent. They’re not. Most people who go into education go into it because they’re trying to make a difference for kids.

A couple of parents, especially those of young children, found that the book was really terrifying to read. I do want to be realistic about issues that teenagers face, but I think that there are a lot of really great signs about life as a teenager today.

The thing I find the most sad about Mohawk Central School District is that a couple of years before Jacob was in school, another student had tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance, and it was essentially squashed. It’s so deeply rejecting. There is a lot of good evidence that Gay-Straight Alliances are really helpful for kids, so the idea that the school had actually refused one of the best remedies out there before Jacob showed up and had all his problems is just dismaying.

Guernica: Any other pitfalls you see in the book?

Emily Bazelon: A couple of parents, especially those of young children, found that the book was really terrifying to read. They were like, “Oh my God, there’s so much conflict awaiting my child.” I did not intend that to be the message of the book. I do want to be realistic about issues that teenagers face, but I think that there are a lot of really great signs about life as a teenager today.

There is no area of American life that’s changing faster.

If you look at the data on drunk driving deaths, school violence, suicide rates, and sex abuse violence, many of these rates are lower than they used to be. There are a number of measures where teenagers are actually doing much better as a group then they were when I was a teenager, so that’s the coda I want to emphasize. That research is in the introduction and the conclusion, but because I was writing about stories that went wrong, especially in the first two-thirds of the book, people naturally focus on that. But the last whole selection of the book is called “Solutions” because there really are solutions to the dilemmas that the book raises.

Guernica: You say that gay kids, or kids who are perceived as gay, tend to be bullied at a much higher rate than other groups. With the gay movement in America making such strides over the last few years, did you see positive changes trickle down to the school level during the course of your reporting?

Emily Bazelon: There is no area of American life that’s changing faster. I am very moved by polls about the increasing support for gay rights, especially among young people. I hope that the Supreme Court pays attention to that this year. But I think what is happening is that in parts of the country it’s super accepted to be gay and kids have role models, and things are much better. The national media is sending a message of acceptance. And then there are parts of the country where it’s on the brink of acceptance, but we’re not quite there yet.

Even in rural parts of the country that are really conservative, it’s just not going to take that many years before people’s attitudes shift.

Then there are pockets where it’s not tolerated, not accepted at all, and Jacob unfortunately lived in a town like that. One reason my heart goes out to kids like him is that the musicians they like and the TV they watch send a message that of course they should come out—it’s a great thing to come out. Yet when they do that in their real lives, they get slammed for it. It feels very unfair. The local reality hasn’t caught up with the reality they can access through popular culture. Jacob was like a kid on the edge of change.

Guernica: The Internet gives these kids access to everything, more now than ever before. It’s right there but out of reach, which is different from not knowing and not being any worse off for it.

Emily Bazelon: Exactly. In that story, I was really struck by the woman who was leading the gay teen support group that Jacob was in. Her line on this was something like: “Look, we support kids when they come out, but we also need to be realistic with them. We need to think, are they going to need somewhere to stay that night if their parents reject them? What’s going to happen at school? We’re trying to think through the real risks.” I think Jacob was an awesome kid and he was so determined to be himself. There’s something very cool about that, but it also cost him personally.

Guernica: How can we address these issues of societal messages not linking up with reality?

Emily Bazelon: This is a transitional moment and some kids are bearing the brunt of it. The culture can’t and won’t shift everywhere at the same moment in a totally peaceful way. I think what you’re seeing now is that kids who live in places where it’s still not the norm to be accepting of homosexuality are in a toxic environment, and it’s not fair to them. To a degree, this is one way the Internet can be really helpful: for isolated kids who are gay, being able to find other gay kids online if they can’t find them at home is a real benefit.

We wouldn’t want to stamp out aggression. We need aggression. But bullying is a particularly harmful kind of aggression and it is not hard-wired; I think it’s more situational.

It’s amazing how fast the culture is changing. Polling on gay rights and gay relationships shows support is really rising, especially among young people. So while what’s happening to teenagers who are caught in the crosshairs the way Jacob was is tragic, there is also a really hopeful story there.

Even in rural parts of the country that are really conservative, it’s just not going to take that many years before people’s attitudes shift. I really do feel hopeful about that. It’s possible that I’m wrong and we’ll have another red state/blue state divide, and I think for some amount of time that will happen with issues like gay marriage in particular. But I really do think that this is an issue in which people’s attitudes are changing.

Guernica: I was shocked at how adult forms of bullying can be between young girls—take slut shaming.

Emily Bazelon: There is a way that the teenage culture has become more adult—not in a good way. It’s very Jersey Shore. Not to draw a straight line, but you do feel like there is a way in which [these young girls] are posing, trying on harsher, meaner personas that they are seeing out there.

Guernica: What do they gain from this emulation?

Emily Bazelon: I think they unfortunately often gain social status reward. That was definitely true about the girls that I spent a lot of time with in Middletown who were being mean to Monique. That school had a really combative culture. The researcher who helped me understand this was a guy at UC Davis named Robert Feris, who mapped networks at high schools. He showed that the kids who were aggressive by attacking the reputations of other kids—through gossip and exclusion—moved up the social ladder over the course of the year. Alas, there was a clear, rational reason for what they were doing.

Almost everyone goes through some period of being cold and freezing their own capacity for empathy. But there are some good programs that schools use to help students unfreeze that empathy. Adults need to constantly reinforce how important it is to empathize with other people. It’s a value we all have to help impart.

Guernica: So does that mean that it’s evolutionary? Are we meant to bully?

Emily Bazelon: No, no. Is aggression hard-wired? Yes, there’s no question. We wouldn’t want to stamp out aggression. We need aggression. But bullying is a particularly harmful kind of aggression and it is not hard-wired; I think it’s more situational. So then the question is how you change the dynamic in a school so that you get rewarded for being kind and sticking up for other kids as opposed to trying to cut them down?

Guernica: In your research, did you see examples of the opposite—young girls emulating more positive influences?

Emily Bazelon: Definitely. One of my favorite stories in the book is about Delete Day. These girls at a Catholic girls school in Queens had to come up with their own school-wide project—they were seniors and it was part of the graduation requirement—and they came up with the idea of advising younger students on how to clean up their online profiles, and not in a heavy-handed way.

They basically said, “Hey, do you really want to have seven hundred Facebook friends when you don’t actually know seven hundred people? Do you really want to have on your page that you are part of a group called ‘Drinks All Day’?” It was those kinds of things. I thought it was a great example of girls taking it upon themselves to interact with the culture in a more positive way. It’s important to note that the Internet is here with us to stay, and it has tremendous benefits, including for teenagers—so the message of my book is not that we should all get offline. It’s about how kids can be online in a way that’s better for them.

Guernica: Can empathy be learned?

Emily Bazelon: Yes, it can totally be learned. That’s really important for me to say. One of the most heartening things I found [during my reporting was] that very few kids have no capacity for empathy. There are people in the world who are psychopaths, but that is an extremely rare condition. Almost everyone goes through some period of being cold and freezing their own capacity for empathy. But there are some good programs that schools use to help students unfreeze that empathy. Adults need to constantly reinforce how important it is to empathize with other people. It’s a value we all have to help impart.

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