Sticks and Stones: Changing Our Culture of Teen Bullying

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 is 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, she said she didn’t appreciate 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.

And here’s good news for you! If this sounds like an interesting read,  we have a copy of Sticks and Stones to give away here at The Broad Side!  Leave a comment on this post about your experience with middle-school bullying, especially if it relates to cyber-bullying and our teens hanging out online, and we will pick one comment at random on Friday, March 1 to receive it!

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  • Recently, my 15-year-old daughter found she and a friend on the receiving end of bullying via IM, Facetime (over phones) and Facebook. While I won’t go into details, I will say the incident blew up before we knew about it and the school was promptly involved. Verbal abuse on Facebook was a ripple that got a large crowd involved, prompting kids to take sides and say things they should not have, even well-meaning kids. When I was bullied on a schoolbus and in school as a teen, I knew when I got home, I was safe. With digital bullying, your home, your online presence and your private time are invaded making it harder to walk away and get some respite.

  • I have been able to avoid the cyberbullying and bullying in general (it helps that I was homeschooled before MySpace and Facebook!). However, I have three daughters ages 9, 8 an four and I am starting to worry about the upcoming years. I’d love to have a jumpstart on understanding what goes on and how to help my kids navigate it.

  • I’d love to read this. Those years are right around the corner for us and I need to be prepared.

  • Jenny

    Middle school is the roughest part of school in my opinion. Between my nieces and nephews and 4 kids of my own I believe this book is an important read, and I’d love to win it!!! I read an interview with the author the other day and found it so eye-opening and helpful. I shared it with my friends on FB and it started a lot of great conversations. I’m excited to read this book whether I win or not. Thanks for giving one away!

  • Jeanette

    As a mother of two teenage girls, in a new community; bullying at school and on the internet about cost me the lives of my children and hugely contributed to my loss of a steady 10 year employment. Devastated by the numerous life threats, the physical violence, non-stop verbal abuse, constant phone calls to police, school officials, school boards, news stations, picketing, and calling various school districts applying for transfers, we have finally overcome this disaster and are moving forward. Unfortunately, the horrific experience isn’t without lasting effects. My children have suffered many negative consequences as a result of the bullying and unfortunately, the community remains unchanged as I see it. I moved my children to different schools (one to an entirely different city) but sadly, the children that remain in this city suffer greatly. Bullying is a huge problem here and there have been many teen suicide attempts because of it. Several teens have died over the years in this area and bullying ends up being the “culprit”. I’ve asked many times, “Why isn’t more done to prevent bullying?” I think overall the problem is “down played”, denied, and excuses are made by school officials that “bullying isn’t a problem here in this school”. With crowded schools and limited staff, I think the problem will remain until officials take a more serious step to stop bullying and develop a no tolerance policy as it should be.

  • I’m afraid of middle school and what it may hold for my daughter. At this time, she’s in a gifted program and her interaction with kids outside her program are limited and controlled. I worry about what will happen as her digital life becomes more important. She’s already been bullied, but I’ve been able to get it taken care of quickly. But I am very concerned, especially give what other parents share.

  • Lucretia Pruitt

    Wow… Win it or buy it, I expect this will be on my reading list shortly. Middle school was something I survived, not someplace I thrived – and there was no Internet, mobile, or anonymous trolling. Even if all goes well when my 4th grade girl gets there? I expect it will still be tougher for pretty much everyone in her generation.
    Always looking to add to the toolkit.

    • Lucretia, The sad news is that this sort of bullying actually starts in late elementary school now, rather than in middle school. The really hard part is trying to explain to our kids why it happens to them. We try to raise our kids to be kind and thoughtful, and schools try to support that, but somehow, there is always someone who has to be a bully. Logically, I know my daughter has struggled with understanding that.

  • simone

    I recently went on my son’s facebook page (which I now completely regret letting him have…) and the comments by 10 year olds to other 10 year olds blew me away. The problem with the virtual world is kids can say what they don’t have the guts to say in real life!! Very scary.

    • It is now impossible to take Internet access away from a teen since their entire school/education live and other entertainment (Spotify, Pandora, iTunes) are also contained in that box. My kids need access to “Blackboard, online study sessions, even teachers have class Facebook pages for support. There is never simply a blank piece of paper to work on – there is an entertainment center staring back at them. Hard to separate that from the online social world they are a part of for better or for worse.

      I am sorry to hear the awful tales of bullying shared here – and that children as young as 10 have FB pages. We at least insisted on waiting until HS – and that was tough.

  • As a teacher, I hear all the time that parents need to be doing more. As a new parent, I now see how it may seem that schools are never doing enough. I don’t know what the answer is.
    What I do see in my classroom is that kids today are living online. Trying to take a phone from a teenager is like pulling the plug.
    They process their world through social media.
    How do we rediscover empathy in a digital world, when we are simultaneously so separated and so constantly connected?

  • Well, we put the entries in a virtual hat, and @Lucretia Pruitt is the winner of Sticks and Stones! Thank you to everyone for the comments and we hop you’ll stay tuned for other books we have coming up to give away!!

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