Author and Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelon said instances of bullying have not increased recently although media reports about it have, and she cautioned listeners The Brian Lehrer Show against mis-using the label.
“I want people to be worried about the right things. It’s true that bullying is not epidemic and the rates haven’t really changed over the last 25 years,” she said. “On the other hand, the internet does make kids feel like bullying is 24/7 and they can’t escape it.”
This in turn can have real effects on a child’s emotional health and school performance. Bullying is a real phenomenon, she said, and one schools can help mitigate with the right strategies.
“You are never going to have a world in which kids are nice to each other all the time and they need to learn how to solve their own problems,” she said. “So we need to apply the label sparingly so we address what the real harm is but also leave kids some room to grow in managing their own conflicts.”
Bazelon recently published Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.
She criticized suspension as a useful response by a school. It takes the child out of school when they may need more school support and it does not have a real deterrent effect. A more effective approach is changing the school culture, she said.
“What you want is a school in which kids are not becoming more popular by being mean because that is one of the reasons kids bully. They can see it adds to their social status.”
Students overall disapprove of bullying and want it to stop. Schools can help them stand up to bullies if that is part of the school culture.
“If they feel like they are in an environment where standing up for other kids in large ways and sometimes just in small ways by expressing sympathy, when that is valued, then you kind of isolate the bullies and you reduce the problematic behavior,” Bazelon said.
A mother called the show to talk about the bullying of her 15-year-old son who was verbally bullied by a girl who talked about him in a loud voice, about his clothes, his hair, his intelligence. Finally, her son lost his temper and yelled at the bully. A school official saw him, and made him go to the principal’s office. No further action was taken despite the mother’s entreaties to investigate charges of bullying.
An administrator at a charter school in Newark, NJ called to complain about the New Jersey law that, she said, overburdens schools with responsibility to address bullying, and very broadly defines bullying.
“It’s very challenging,” she said. “Kids often make poor choices and say bad things. Often if you follow up with them immediately you can nip something in the bud and it’s not an incident. However, if we have to follow very prescriptive disciplinary actions with every single incident it actually distracts from learning.”
Bazelon said the New Jersey law was “very broad and unrealistic,” but it raises an important issue.
“We are asking schools to take on a big burden here and really shoulder the responsibility of raising our kids and instilling values and dealing with misbehavior in a way that wasn’t true a generation ago. And I don’t think it’s clear the schools have the resources to do that because we haven’t really thought through what we’re demanding.”
On the comments page, fuva from harlemworld wrote this: “For real, at what point does anti-bullying mechanisms become counterproductive helicoptering that robs kids of valuable developmental, skin-thickening experience?”
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn said she was bullied. “My mother, who didn’t know I was being bullied, had told us long before that if someone bothers you, just ignore them. I tried that in various circumstances and it worked. Part of the bullying culture is that the bullies want a fear response. If that craving is not satisfied, they eventually go elsewhere.”