Today's Bullied Teens Subject To 'Sticks And Stones' Online, Too
Originally published on Tue February 19, 2013 1:27 pm
When Emily Bazelon was in eighth grade, her friends fired her. Now a senior editor for Slate, Bazelon writes in her new book, Sticks and Stones: "Two and a half decades later, I can say that wryly: it happened to plenty of people, and look at us now, right? We survived. But at the time, in that moment, it was impossible to have that kind of perspective."
In Sticks and Stones, Bazelon explores teen bullying, what it is and what it isn't, and how the rise of the Internet and social media make the experience more challenging.
"It really can make bullying feel like it's 24/7," Bazelon tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. Comparing it with her own experience as a young teenager, she says that "when I got home from school, there was a break. I didn't have to deal with [my friends] directly, and I could sort of put myself back together in the afternoon and evening. Whereas now when you come home if you're a victim of bullying, you're likely to see this continue on a social media site or via texting."
For parents who grew up without the Internet, understanding the technology that is an integral aspect of today's kid culture is a struggle, she says. Her question regarding that generational gulf informs the book. A parent herself, Bazelon says that she wanted to think about what limits made sense to set as her children entered the online world.
To complicate matters further, there is the issue of what role schools should play in a teen's digital life.
"We don't make schools responsible for all the stuff that kids do at the movies or on the beach or walking down the street," Bazelon says, "and yet if there's a cruel thread on Facebook or Twitter or a bunch of mean harassing texts go around, it's very typical for parents to bring those into the school and ask for help because they naturally feel that since it's among students, the school should have some role. I think it's clear that schools can help kids and parents talk through these situations. What I think is much trickier is whether they can really take on the role of punishing, and ... are schools really set up to police all this behavior, and do we really want them to play that role?"
On teens' capacity for empathy
"We want to think that empathy is this natural quality we all have, and in fact, almost everyone is capable of empathy. But there are these moments in adolescence where kids freeze out these feelings. I spent a lot of time with some of the girls who were bullying Monique [who is profiled in the book], and in moments it chilled me to listen to how dismissive they were in talking about her. But in other reflective moments they would say things like, 'You know, I see that she's walking down the hall with her head hanging down and really doesn't have as many friends as she used to have.' So it wasn't that they were incapable of empathy, it was much more that they were in a culture in which they were being encouraged to be cruel to another kid to enhance their own status instead of really letting their feelings of empathy for her have an outlet."
On what Facebook could be doing to help stem cyberbullying
"Facebook has a lot of influence over kids who are mean. They know from their own data that when they tell kids that they've posted something inappropriate [and] they ask them to take it down, those kids don't re-offend. Facebook's line on this to me was that they have a very low recidivism rate, and so to me, that suggests that Facebook can really use its influence to the good with kids in a way it has been reluctant to do so far, because it doesn't want to be seen as uncool."
On one bullying situation that Bazelon feels was handled intelligently by school counselors and administrators
"[The guidance counselor] decided one of those relationships [among the three girls] was a pretty equal relationship, and she could sit two of the kids down together, and they had enough residual trust and liking for each other that they might be able to talk it out with her help. And she did that, and in fact the girls told me that they had found that helpful. But then when the girl who was really the main bully in this scenario ... this guidance counselor decided, you know, 'This isn't going to work to sit these kids down together because it may be that the bully will say what she thinks the adult wants to hear in the room, and then there will be all kinds of consequences once the kids leave.'
"And so with that girl she sent that girl to the principal — and in this school it was unusual for kids to get sent to the principal for discipline, he was kind of reserved for the harder cases — and I asked that girl what this meeting was like. She said, 'You know, he appealed to me for help. He said, 'Look, we have a problem and you're the one who can stop it.' And she liked the idea that he was turning to her and that she had had this moment with him, and so she cut it out. She said that she felt like she wanted to help him in the way he had asked."
On having not read The Feminine Mystique by her grandmother's second cousin Betty Friedan until a few months ago. Friedan gave Bazelon a copy of the book for Bazelon's bat mitzvah:
"It's such an embarrassing confession. First of all, I had this lovely copy, though I think I found it just too intimidating as a teenager. And then, second of all, I should have just taken a good women's history course in college. My husband read The Feminine Mystique in graduate school when he was getting a history Ph.D., but I just never got around to it. My only excuse for this is I think the ideas in that book have seeped so deeply into our culture that I felt like I didn't need to read it to understand the argument that Betty was making, although when I did finally read it I got a lot out of that."
On raising two sons
"I feel like it's the most important job I have as a feminist to raise two boys who are going to appreciate the women in their lives and support them in what they do. It's something I've benefited tremendously from with my husband, whose mother always worked and who takes for granted that what I'm doing is just as important as what he's doing, and that this is a shared enterprise we have in our family. ... We don't always pull it off so gracefully, but we're working it out together."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about bullying. There's nothing new about kids being cruel to each other. But as my guest, Emily Bazelon, points out in her new book "Sticks and Bones," with the constant connectivity of cellphones and other devices, bullying doesn't stop even when you're alone in your bedroom. Bazelon describes the difficult decisions facing bullied students, their parents and their schools, by focusing on the stories of three teenagers. In one case, the seventh-grader's mother pulled her out of school. In the second, after being physically and verbally harassed, the student sued the school. And in the third case, the victim of bullying committed suicide, and six teenagers face criminal charges. Because social media has expanded the realm of bullying, Bazelon also spent time at the offices of Facebook; to learn about a program the company was creating to help kids deal with being bullied on Facebook.
Bazelon started writing about bullying in a series for Slate back in 2009. She's now a senior editor there. She's also the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School, and writes about legal issues. Emily Bazelon, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about bullying?
EMILY BAZELON: I got interested in bullying when I started reading stories in the newspaper a few years ago about cyberbullying. And it was sort of treated as this brand-new, alarming phenomenon. And I'm a mother. I have kids who are 10 and 13. And I was interested in how the Internet is changing what it's like to grow up. So that was sort of the point of entry for my investigation.
GROSS: And what about some of your concerns as a parent?
BAZELON: I think that technology use is just such a struggle for parents right now. It's so different than when we were growing up; that cellphones, social media, all of these things that are incredibly important to kid culture, that we just didn't experience. So I wanted to think about, through my reporting, what kind of limits make sense to set, how you make sure to give your kids some oversight when they start with all these new technologies.
GROSS: So how do you think cyberbullying has changed life for the victim of bullying?
BAZELON: So first of all, it really can make bullying feel like it's 24/7. You know, when I was growing up and I was a teenager, and I had an experience of having this moment where my friends fired me - which I can say now kind of dryly but at the time, was intensely painful - when I got home from school, there was a break. I didn't have to deal with them directly, and I could sort of put myself back together in the afternoon and evening; whereas now when you come home, if you're a victim of bullying, you're likely to see this kind of continue on a social media site or via texting. And it's really hard for kids not to look when they think there's some mean thing being spread around about them. And then the other change for them is because it's being written down, it can feel very- kind of permanent and visible, and the bullying can take place in front of quite a large audience.
GROSS: And as you point out, a lot of people will say things much harsher in print than they'd say face to face.
BAZELON: Right. I think there's really a mismatch. You know, for the kid who is putting out the mean message, it can feel like you're doing something kind of casually. You push the send button, you don't think that much. The target of the mean thing you're saying isn't there. So you don't see their response. There's no face-to-face moment.
And so you can put something out there in the world that can have quite devastating consequences, without having thought it through enough. And that really hits kids in a developmental weak spot because we know that their brains aren't fully developed while they're teenagers, and one of the things that's slower to develop is impulse control.
GROSS: You quote a Pew study about which people - like, demographically, which teenagers are most at risk of cyberbullying. And you write that the study found that the Web is toughest on 12 and 13-year-olds, and on lower-income children. And that surprised me, actually, the lower-income part. Twelve and 13-year-olds - I figured yup, that makes sense. Why do you think it's tougher for lower-income children?
BAZELON: You know, I think this is another kind of digital divide; where if kids are online a lot and they're not necessarily getting a lot of help figuring out how to use the Internet well, how to do social media without being mean, then it may be that they'll bring a kind of culture of aggression with them. And in one of the schools I spent a lot of time in - which was like, kind of a working-class school, diverse - in Middletown, Connecticut, the kids really benefited socially in school, from being very combative. They had all these words for it: gunning, and flaming, and cracking on other kids. And then you could see, when you saw what they were writing on Facebook, that they were translating that same way of communicating online. So maybe that helps explain that finding you were talking about.
GROSS: You say they benefited from that in school?
BAZELON: Yeah, it was a culture in which the way you rose socially was to be mean. That's why they had all these names for how they were acting.
GROSS: Oh, I see what you're saying.
BAZELON: Yeah. I mean, it's not a good thing. But their behavior, in that context, was rational. They were being mean because that was how you became popular.
GROSS: So in one of the bullying stories that you tell in your book, the kids start a Let's Start Drama site on - is it on Facebook that they did that?
BAZELON: Yeah, it's a group page on Facebook that hundreds of kids joined. And it's set up anonymously by - probably a girl; everyone thought it was a girl, but someone who wasn't identified. And she used the site for a couple things. One was to put gossip out there in a sort of, you know, gossip-sheet way, where the whole school was reading it. And another was to pit kids against each other in these contests. For girls, it would be who's prettier; for boys, it would be who would win in a fight. And there were real fights and real arguments that came out of the site.
GROSS: But there was a lot of real bullying that ended up on the site too, right?
BAZELON: Yeah, exactly. It really caused an enormous amount of conflict and trouble in the school. And it was a real challenge for adults at the school to handle, because it was all taking place online and not in school; but the ramifications were coming into the school.
GROSS: And are there rules on Facebook that should theoretically prevent a Facebook site from being used to bully people?
BAZELON: Yes, and that page is actually an easy call because it was set up with a made-up email address. And Facebook has what it calls real-name culture, where you're supposed to use your real name for everything. And so when the adults at that school reported it as being fake, it should have come down, but it didn't.
GROSS: Why didn't it?
BAZELON: Well, when I spent a day at Facebook, I talked to them about this particular page, and they looked up the history of it. I was spending time with the people who handle all the abuse complaints. And there's an enormous volume of complaints. So they are working through them really quickly - and doing the best they can but in this instance, they just missed the report. They just had - the initial complaints had gotten ignored, and then they had put an auto-ignore message on all the future ones that had come in. So once they knew about it from me, they took it down. It was a clear violation of their rules, but they had not caught it on their own.
GROSS: So it was you who got it taken down?
BAZELON: Yes. (LAUGHTER) They sort of said, well - you know - now, it has to come down. And I thought, well - you know, the school's going to be better off without it, so I think that's OK.
GROSS: Well, you know, this whole issue of cyberbullying raises the question - is when is it appropriate for parents, when is it appropriate for schools to intervene, and when is it really none of their business? And what are some of your - the thoughts that you've developed on that?
BAZELON: You know, I think that this is a huge challenge for schools. I mean, we don't make schools responsible for all the stuff that kids do at the movies or on the beach or walking down the street. And yet if there's a cruel thread on Facebook or Twitter, or a bunch of - you know, harassing texts go around, it's very typical for parents to bring those into the school and ask for help because they naturally feel that since it's among students, the school should have some role.
I think it's clear that schools can help kids and parents talk through these situations. What I think is much trickier is whether they can really take on the role of punishing. And there are some legal questions about that, about students' free-speech rights. And then there's also this bigger - organizational questions. Are schools really set up to police all this behavior that's taking place off-campus, and do we really want them to play that role?
GROSS: In one of the stories about cyberbullying that you tell, a guidance counselor becomes aware of one of the students who's being cyberbullied, and the guidance counselor decides to intervene. At what point did she decide it was appropriate to intervene, and what did she do?
BAZELON: At her school, the standard was that if she thought a student's safety was at risk, that she had to take action. And so what happened was that a girl came into her office very upset about some posts on a site called Formspring - yet another social media site, in which there's a lot of anonymity. And the posts were really over the top. They were, you know, baiting her into committing suicide, and revealing very private details about her life. And for this girl, it was devastating; and she was walking around feeling incredibly nervous and worried and anxious.
So the guidance counselor actually couldn't access the site in school, and went home that night and logged on and started looking around at this girl's page, which led her to lots of other students. And she found a lot of material that really distressed her. So she reported it to the site as a violation, though no action was taken, and then she started calling around to the parents and saying, you know, I need to let you know what your kids are doing. And then the final step she took, which I think is really interesting, was she wrote a note to the kids, knowing that a lot of them would see it.
And she said - you know - look, I'm your guidance counselor. And I just wanted you to know I'm here, and I'm seeing a lot of disturbing things you're writing, and it's troubling to me. And she heard about, you know, over the next few days in school, that a bunch of kids had stopped using the site simply because she had shown up there.
GROSS: But then did they just go to another site and start cyberbullying the same person there?
BAZELON: That didn't happen, in this instance. There's a big debate about whether every time you solve one cyberbullying problem on one site, the kids just migrate to another one. And I mean, sure, there is some risk of that. But I also think it's important to deal with the crisis you have in front of you, and think about whether the rules of one particular place may actually be more conducive to negative behavior. And at that school, this site called Formspring really was playing a pretty devious role.
GROSS: So why is it difficult for schools to intervene in cyberbattles? What are some of the obstacles, even though this guidance counselor stepped in and had a good outcome?
BAZELON: Well, sometimes schools are just overwhelmed. I mean it can really take a lot of investigating to figure out what's going on. And you may think you have this one text that very clearly points to an evil perpetrator and then find out it's a lot more complicated. And so there's just a question of the hours that it can take for schools to really dig into this.
GROSS: Then there's also, there's the privacy issue. Is it appropriate to intervene in other people's communications?
BAZELON: Absolutely. We have this line from a Supreme Court case that constitutional rights don't stop at the schoolhouse door for students. And the truth is in reality when kids are in school, there are limits on what they can say. You know, for example, schools are allowed to censor school newspapers.
But schools are not necessarily - we might not want them to have the same kind of authority over this whole domain of speech outside of school. And so there's actually a really interesting and unsettled legal debate going on in which judges are coming down with different rulings in very similar cases about cyberbullying and whether schools can punish students for cyberbullying.
GROSS: And why is that a complicated question?
BAZELON: Well, so for example there was a girl named Kara Kowalski(ph), and she was accused of creating a page on MySpace, this is - you know it's an old case when it's a MySpace story...
BAZELON: ...in which she said - because the kids are not on MySpace.
BAZELON: Well, they've migrated over to Instagram, that's the latest thing, I hear, from my own children anyway. So Kara was accused of creating a page in which she said another girl at the school had herpes. And there was all kinds of hurtful material on this page, which is also - it's a defamatory statement.
The girl who was the target, her parents brought this page into school, and Kara was suspended for 10 days and wasn't allowed to cheerlead. And then there was this crazy detail where she had been the charm winner of a contest at the school, so she wasn't allowed to anoint the next charm winner, which is kind of bizarre that she would have been that person.
But in any case, that was the punishment. And she sued and said that, you know, essentially this was her First Amendment right to post what she wanted outside of school and that it was beyond the school's authority to police this.
Now, the judge in that case said that she was wrong. He said, look, you know, there could have been a real disruption in school because of this incredibly cruel post, and that was good enough, enough reason for the school to intervene. But there's another similar case in Beverly Hills in which a judge removed the suspension of a girl who had posted an incredibly mean YouTube video about another student.
So there's a real just question mark in the courts right now.
GROSS: Now, you told us about one case in which I think it was the school tried to intervene and shut down a page because there was so much bullying going on on that page, and that request just got lost in the shuffle, and it was basically ignored. Have you come across instances where, you know, the school or a parent intervenes and contacts the social media company and says there's bullying going on on this page, you have to shut it down?
BAZELON: Yes, parents do get posts deleted, and actually one thing I learned at Facebook is that if you report you're being bullied yourself, the site will essentially take your word for it. So actually it makes sense for kids to do the reporting themselves.
You know, though, one thing I learned from a mother I spent a lot of time with in Middletown, Connecticut, her child was being bullied on Facebook. And she said, look, this isn't really about the posts coming down. This is about the underlying behavior of the kids, and it's - she wasn't that interested in the social media part. She was really trying to solve this bigger problem in her daughter's life.
GROSS: Like there was going to be hate, whether it was expressed on social media or not. The hate would still be there.
BAZELON: Right, exactly, and so that was the combative school we were talking about earlier. And so one big question was, OK, you know, how could other kids at that school or at least in Monique's life, the girl who was at issue here, how could they be encouraged to stick up for Monique?
And one of the good steps her mom took was to sign her up for this local boxing team that was really like a tight group with a very smart coach who was also a social worker. And so when things were really hitting bottom for Monique, he called the girls on the team together and said, look, you know, we need to do something for her.
And one of the leaders on the team did. She called Monique and got her to come back to the boxing group when Monique had kind of pulled away a little because she was really depressed about what was happening to her. And then this girl invited Monique over and then even stuck up for her on a Facebook thread.
So to me the question was, OK, why did this girl feel like she could take these steps? And part of it, I think, was her own sense of empathy and her own strength. But part of it was she was in this - on this team in which she was getting supported and encouraged in this kind of behavior. So I think that's a really important part of it, what environments can we create for kids in which they're rewarded for being kind instead of for being mean.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Bazelon, she's the author of the new book "Sticks and Stones." It's about bullying, teenage bullying, and it's about all kinds of bullying: physical, verbal and cyberbullying. And Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Bazelon. She's a senior editor at Slate and author of a new book about teenage bullying called "Sticks and Stones." Now, you refer to the importance of learning empathy, and in a way I think it's kind of sad to think that teenagers have to be taught empathy in some places, or at least some teenagers have to be taught empathy.
BAZELON: Right, we want to think that empathy is this natural quality we all have, and in fact almost everyone is capable of empathy. But there are these moments in adolescence where kids really kind of freeze out those feelings. I spent a lot of time with some of the girls who were bullying Monique, and in moments it chilled me to listen to how dismissive they were in talking about her.
But you know, in other reflective moments, they would say things like, you know, I see that she's walking down the hall with her head hanging down and really doesn't have as many friends as she used to have. So it wasn't that they were incapable of empathy, it was much more that they were in a culture in which they were being encouraged to be cruel to another kid to enhance their own status instead of really letting their feelings of empathy for her have an outlet.
GROSS: I think a lot of parents fear that their children are growing up without a sense of boundaries, that there are boundaries that you don't cross in another person's life. People are entitled to privacy. And sometimes social media just totally violates boundaries. And so do you feel like there's some kind of, I don't know, training or discussion that needs to be had for children who are growing up with social media, who don't know a world without it, and who only, you know, who are growing up in a world where there aren't boundaries?
BAZELON: I think it's really important. You know, we don't just like toss our kids out the door at midnight and expect them to thrive in the outside world. And in the same way, when they're going online for the first time, just talking through with them what you think the norm should be is important. And I think that's especially key because these sites are encouraging kids to share widely and habitually.
That's good for their business models. The more brand loyalty they can build among kids and teenagers and the more they can habituate all of us to just sharing, the more money they make. So we need to make sure to help kids think about whether they really want to be putting intimate details, intimate photographs about their lives online.
And so I know as a parent that's something that I've really tried to be wary of. And I know, you know, for my kids, they would tell you that it's incredibly bad luck to have a mother who is writing a book about cyberbullying just as they are...
BAZELON: ...just as they are becoming teenagers. But I really do feel like they can't hear too often that there are consequences to what you write online and that they need to be aware of that.
GROSS: Have they faced consequences yet?
BAZELON: They haven't, you know, partly, I think, because of this book.
BAZELON: They know they really have to behave themselves right now. We did have a dilemma, my husband and I, about when to get our older son a cellphone. So he started a new school for seventh grade this year, and he wanted a phone, all the kids had a phone. We had delayed. We decided we thought he could handle it.
We got him what we call a dumb phone instead of a smartphone, one that he can text on and make calls, though he never calls anyone, he only texts, really, but not one that has the Internet. And that's a kind of continuing battle in my house. But I feel like for right now that's like an incremental step he can take, a more one-on-one kind of communication, and I want to make sure that he has mastered that before he moves on to social media.
GROSS: No Internet because that means no social media?
BAZELON: Right, I mean he uses the Internet at home. I don't want to make us sound like total purists. But I just don't see why a 13-year-old kid needs to have the Internet, access to the Internet in his pocket all day. That just seems like too much to me.
GROSS: Emily Bazelon will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book about bullying is called "Sticks and Stones." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Emily Bazelon, author of the new book "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy." It's about the difficult decisions facing bullied teenagers, as well as their parents and their schools. Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate and is the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She frequently writes about legal issues.
One of the things you did as part of your research is you spent a day at Facebook to see how they're dealing with bullying and complaints about bullying, and they were actually in the process of devising a program to try to help young people who are the victims of bullying. Has that program gone into effect?
BAZELON: You know, it has and they've done more work on it. And I'm glad you asked me because this is one good thing I can say about Facebook. They started working with some psychologists from Yale and Berkeley this year to figure out how to better respond to kids when they complain about bullying and harassment. And when the psychologists actually brought in some real kids, the kids said, you know, we want to feel like it's more of a conversation, as opposed to sort of sending a message in a bottle and feeling like there's no response or a very automated response. So now Facebook is testing with 13 and 14-year-olds responses that are more tailored to what the kids say is happening and that do more to encourage them to share negative content with someone they trust in their own lives. And that's a good idea because it's the people who are around you who know what the context is.
GROSS: So the program that Facebook is experimenting with is for 13 and 14-year-olds who complain about bullying. Do you know what some of the questions they will be asked are if they do complain about bullying to Facebook?
BAZELON: So with one thing they're asked is how upset they are. And the idea is that that will help them gauge their own level of emotion and then Facebook can send them different responses based on their answers.
GROSS: And what are some of the responses that they might be sent?
BAZELON: Well, if you tell Facebook that you're not particularly upset about a post, Facebook will encourage you or suggest to you that you could just ask the person who posted it to take it down. And they're finding that actually people respond when they're asked that question directly and that it helps kids to have some kind of prewritten message to send to encourage them to do that. But then if you're more upset, Facebook will do more to try and encourage you to talk to a trusted adult. The problem, of course, is if you're really upset there's probably more going on here than the site is necessarily going to be able to handle with an automated message.
And so one criticism I do have of Facebook that's continuing is that Facebook has a lot of influence over kids who are mean. They know from their own data that when they tell kids that they've posted something inappropriate, they ask them to take it down, those kids don't re-offend. I mean Facebook's line on this to me was that they have a very low recidivism rate, and so to me that suggests that Facebook can really use its influence to the good with kids in a way that it has been reluctant to do so far I think because it doesn't want to be seen as uncool.
GROSS: They might also feel like they're risking teenagers moving to another site where they won't be patrolled.
BAZELON: Exactly. Exactly. But, you know, the reason Facebook matters so much in this conversation is it's still where so many of the kids are. There are more than 20 million American teenagers on Facebook, and so while other sites are competitors, Facebook is really setting the tone here and so their standards matter enormously.
Another step they could take that they really haven't done is to work directly with schools to try and help schools put out fires. And so that's one thing that I wonder if, you know, we could all push for because Facebook does respond to consumers when consumers say hey, you know, we demand a change here.
GROSS: It's so tough, though, because you want children to be able to communicate with each other without like the principal knowing what they're saying.
BAZELON: Well, absolutely. I don't think Facebook should be sharing any private information of kids with principals. On the other hand, a lot of what kids post on Facebook is entirely public, anyone can see it. And that's another issue, you know, if these privacy settings are going to be so porous then should the site that, you know, has much more bandwidth to be doing these kinds of investigations, would it help if they shared information that was already public, or even if principals just had an easier way to make complaints themselves that could be fast-tracked and Facebook could know that they should really look at and respond to.
GROSS: What are your own ground rules for whether you should or shouldn't or when you should look your own children's social networking, and one of your children is a teenager and one is a preteen. Do I have that right?
BAZELON: That's right. So right now my kids are not on social media but when they go on, I'm planning from the beginning to say to them look, I need to have your password, at least in the beginning, I want to help guide you through this world. And one of the reasons I feel that strongly is because of a mistake my husband and I made. When we got our older son a cellphone we didn't say, you know, in the beginning we just want to scroll through your text, not because we don't trust you, just to sort of make sure you're getting the hang of this. And then we realized he was texting a lot from looking at the phone bill and we thought, you know, we should talk to him about this. But at that point he considered this to really be a private zone and he got very upset and felt like we didn't trust him. So I think it's so important to set a kind of stricter standard in the beginning and then you can ease up as you see that your kid is handling this new world in a smart way.
GROSS: Now one of the people who you write about in your book "Sticks and Stones," a book about bullying, is the story of a gay teenager who was bullied at school because he was gay. And he ended up taking his case to the court. Why did he take it to the court?
BAZELON: So this is a boy named Jacob Lasher in upstate New York and he was a kid who in seventh and eighth grade started painting his fingernails and dying his hair. And in his community that was just not normal behavior, not acceptable behavior and the other kids started giving him a really hard time and it was just continuous harassment. I mean, when you read the court documents it's just a really sad story of a boy, you know, having his phone broken and being pushed down the stairs and being insulted very regularly in school. And finally his parents just reached a breaking point. They felt like they had complained to the principal and the superintendent so many times and no effective action was being taken for their son. And so as a last resort they went to the New York Civil Liberties Union and so do we have any legal recourse here? And because this bullying really was about both Jacob's sexual orientation, because then he had come out as gay, and also the way in which he just wasn't conforming to the stereotypes we have about boys, there was a way that they could bring a lawsuit, and they were able both to get the school to institute some reforms and also to win some money for their son.
GROSS: So what were the grounds for the suit?
BAZELON: The grounds for the suit were equal protection, so the idea that everybody has the same right to go to school and boys and girls have to be treated the same. And then Title IX, which protects students against sexual-harassment -including sexual-harassment on the basis of your sexuality. And then finally, in New York state, there is a law that directly protects students from the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
GROSS: So was part of the premise of the suit if a girl was being treated that way by boys she probably would have been more protected by the school than this gay boy was?
BAZELON: Right. And also the idea that kids shouldn't have to act a particular way because they're boy or girl, that you should be able to be a boy who can wear nail polish and dye your hair and that should be something the schools should be able to handle.
GROSS: My guest is Emily Bazelon, author of a new book about bullying called "Sticks and Stones."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Bazelon. She's the author of a new book about bullying called "Sticks and Stones." And she's a senior editor at Slate.
Now in your book you write that sometimes you think we're actually too hard on the bullies. And an example that you give is a case where the victim of the bullies actually committed suicide. And six teenagers, four girls and two boys, faced criminal charges for bullying her to the point where she killed herself. Why do you think that this was actually being too hard on the bullies?
BAZELON: This is the story of the aftermath of the death of Phoebe Prince who was a 15-year-old girl in South Hadley, Massachusetts, who killed herself in January 2010. And you're right, a few months later six teenagers faced criminal charges with heavy prison sentences - 10 years apiece. And the way the charges were constructed, the kids were really being directly blamed for Phoebe's death. The prosecutor held a press conference in which she talked about a relentless three month long campaign of bullying that led to Phoebe's death. And I was interested in a reporter about, you know, how this could have gone on in a seemingly normal community, what was wrong with this high school.
When I started spending time with the kids in the high school - not the kids who had been charged but just other kids - they said that this whole narrative, which at that point was all over the national media, was just wrong. That in fact, these kids who had been accused of all this relentless bullying had had a much more complicated relationship with Phoebe. And then it turned out that she had had a history of depression and cutting and of suicide attempt and those are really strong risk factors for suicide. So while not excusing the conduct of the kids, three of those kids were really mean to Phoebe on the day that she died, and there's no question from her text messages that day that that was a trigger for suicide. The notion that these six kids were all to blame directly and simply, that this was the only explanation for what had happened to her and that they should bear such a heavy consequence for it, that just seemed wrong to me, and so that's what that story in my book is about.
GROSS: Did any of these six teenagers actually go to prison?
BAZELON: No. In the end, the prosecutor who brought the charges left office and time passed and the charges were really hard to prove because they were so over-the-top. And so, in the end, none of the kids went to prison. One boy pled guilty to one misdemeanor count of harassment. And some of the other kids were held accountable but in a way that as long as their records remain clean until adulthood they would have the charges essentially expunged. And so in the end there were very minimal consequences, and I think that's a telling point about how heavy-handed the original criminal charges were.
GROSS: In writing about what some of the things are that schools do right and schools do wrong, you offer the example of Jacob, who was - who is a gay teenager, one of the cases you write about in the book is his bullying, and he's gay and that's why he was bullied. And the school dealing with this made it mandatory that he and one of his main bullies sit next to each other for a week in the cafeteria. How did that work?
BAZELON: It did not go well. These boys did not want to eat lunch together. And the idea, of course, was if they spend time - were forced to spend time together they would come to some deeper understanding. But there was just too much mutual antipathy at that point, neither of them wanted to be there and it really didn't help. That school, there was a missed opportunity. Before Jacob even arrived, there was a student who was a couple of years ahead of him named Eric Burnett. He was the first male student to come out at the school and he started a gay-straight alliance. And these organizations really - there's good research showing that they are a buffer against anti-gay harassment in schools, they can really help. And Eric put a lot of work into this organization, but when he went to the school board for official approval of his group he was turned down, and his logo was stripped away, the kids in his group were not allowed to have their photo in the yearbook as a gay-straight alliance, and that just seems to me like a really sad precursor to what happened to Jacob because if that group had continued it might have really changed the culture of that school.
GROSS: So those are two of samples of what you think that school did wrong. One was not allowing a gay-straight alliance, which could have really helped Jacob, a gay student, but also then assigning Jacob and his bully to sit next together in the cafeteria assuming that that would be helpful when it really wasn't.
What's an example of something you think a school did right in reaction to bullying?
BAZELON: I spent time at a school in Maryland and they had tried to untangle - it was really less bullying and more what kids call drama, a kind of series of incidents in which some girls were tangling with each other and one very powerful girl had kind of brought along a less powerful girl and then turned on her. And there was a moment where a group of girls was essentially descending on this weaker girl and were about to beat her up. And the guidance counselor realized what was going on, was able to separate the girls and prevent a physical fight from happening. And then she spent an enormous amount of time talking to these girls separately about what had happened, trying to figure out what the power dynamics were. Because one important element of the definition of bullying is that there's a power imbalance. It's...
...about what had happened, trying to figure out what the power dynamics were. Because one important element of the definition of bullying is that there's a power imbalance. It's repeated verbal or physical harassment, and it also involves one kid or a group of kids lording it over another kid.
So this guidance counselor was very sensitive to that. And she decided, after talking to everyone, it was really a trio of girls who were at the heart of this. She decided one of those relationships was a pretty equal relationship and that she could sit two of the kids down together and they had enough, kind of, residual trust and liking for each other that they might be able to talk it out with her help.
And she did that. And in fact, the girls told me that they had found that helpful. But then when the girl who really was, kind of, the main bully in the scenario, with her the guidance counselor decided you know what? This isn't going to work to sit these kids down together because it may be that the bully will say what she thinks that the adult wants to hear in the room.
And then there'll be all kinds of consequences, once the kids leave. And so with that girl, she sent that girl to the principal. And in the school, it was unusual for kids to get sent to the principal for discipline. He was kind of reserved for the harder cases. And I asked the girl what this meeting was like.
And she said, you know, he kind of appealed to me for help. He said, look, like, we have a problem and you're the one who could stop it. And she liked the idea that he was turning to her and that she had this moment with him. And so she cut it out. She said that she felt like she wanted to help him in the way he had asked.
GROSS: She felt that he treated her with respect?
BAZELON: Exactly. She felt treated with respect and she felt like she had gotten his attention in a negative way, but that she could turn it around. And she cared about what he thought and so she wanted to do that.
GROSS: So what are your guidelines, your personal guidelines, for when you think it's appropriate or inappropriate for a parent to contact either the school or law enforcement about their child being bullied?
BAZELON: I think if something's happening in school, if there's a connection to school, it's absolutely appropriate for parents to ask for help from the school. And what you want to do before you make that - before you take that step is to make sure you have all the facts straight. You know, it's, of course, your job to be your advocate for your kid but sometimes what will seem like a simple kind of one-way bullying street will turn out to be more complicated.
And so you want to at least find out all the facts. Also, if it turns out that it really is bullying that's happening, and that your child is victimized, the more evidence you have the better you can make your case. So that's the place that I recommend starting. Going to the police can be helpful for cyber bullying if the school tells you there's just nothing they can do about this online harassment.
But I think that is a more dramatic and potentially problematic step to take, because the cops can handle it well. There are a lot of police officers now trained to work in schools who will kind of give verbal warnings to kids in a way that can be effective. That happened in the school in Middletown we were talking about earlier, with Monique's story.
But when you think about what happened in South Hadley, the involvement of the police and the prosecutors was, you know, incredibly heavy-handed. And so that's a way in which turning to law enforcement can make this into a much bigger, escalated problem than with big consequences for teenagers in a way that may not be what is really appropriate.
GROSS: The South Hadley case was a case in which six teenagers were charged with leading to the suicide to the person who they had bullied and they were facing up to 10 years in prison, which they didn't get.
GROSS: Yeah. So I guess I should say I hope you never have to deal with your children being bullied or cyber bullied.
BAZELON: Oh, well, thank you. I appreciate that. They know that, while this book is coming out, they have to be on their best behavior.
GROSS: Good luck with that.
BAZELON: Thank you.
GROSS: My guest is Emily Bazelon. Her new book about bullying is called "Sticks and Stones." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Emily Bazelon. We've been discussing her new book about bullying, "Sticks and Stones." Here's a fact that might not sound related to our conversation, but it is. Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Feminine Mystique," the bestseller which launched a new wave of feminism by addressing the desires that many women felt but hadn't articulated.
Like the desire to find meaning outside of the home, as well as in it. It was written by Betty Friedan. As it turns out, I just learned that you are related to Betty Friedan, the author of "The Feminine Mystique." Explain your relationship to her.
BAZELON: Betty was my grandmother's second cousin and they grew up together about 40 miles apart in Illinois, and spent a fair amount of time together when they were younger. And then Betty was just always part of my extended family, because she and my grandmother continued to be friends into adulthood.
GROSS: So how well did you know her and how famous was she by the time you were old enough to know her?
BAZELON: I got to know Betty when I was 11. I spent two weeks with her and her daughter Emily in Israel with my grandparents on a trip. And then would just always get to see her regularly at holidays and other occasions. And what I really remember about her was that with me and with my sister she was incredibly generous. She was really interested in us and she would talk to us about politics, about the issues she cared about, in a very grown up way.
And I remember really feeling privileged about that.
GROSS: So she gave you - Betty Friedan gave you a 20th anniversary edition of "The Feminine Mystique" for your bat mitzvah. So that was 30 years ago. But you didn't read "The Feminine Mystique" until this month. What took you so long?
BAZELON: It's such an embarrassing confession. You know, first of all, I had this lovely copy, though I think I found it just too intimidating as a teenager. And then second of all, I should've just taken a good women's history course in college. My husband read "The Feminine Mystique" in graduate school...
BAZELON: ...when he was getting a history PhD. But I just never got around to it. And my only excuse for this is that I think the ideas in that book have seeped so deeply into our culture that I felt like I didn't need to read it to understand the argument Betty was making. Although when I did finally read it I got a lot out of that.
GROSS: So what did it tell you about feminism, or Betty Friedan's contribution to feminism, that you didn't know?
BAZELON: I didn't realize how just frustrated she was. There's this kind of howl of pent up frustration at the heart of this book. And you can feel Betty as this suburban - she wasn't exactly a housewife. She was doing some writing, but she felt really stuck and isolated. And I think, you know, the thing that surprised me most is that the book is really addressed to other women.
If she is being critical it's of all the suburban housewives around who are, kind of, accepting their lot instead of pushing themselves to do something more. It's not a book that is really, in any sense, an attack on men. It's really trying to shake women out of the paralysis of what Betty saw to be what she called the false choice that they were making.
GROSS: Did your mother share Betty Friedan's views of feminism when you were growing up?
BAZELON: My mother is a psychiatrist and she worked the whole time I was growing up and I think was in a very natural way a role model for a working woman. So I think she was exactly the kind of professional that Betty was trying to encourage to develop in her own generation. It was just a generation later.
GROSS: Do you think Betty Friedan affected your mother's life or your upbringing?
BAZELON: In all kinds of indirect ways. I mean, I just don't think my life would be possible in the way it has been without the feminist movement. And Betty was foundational to that movement. There is a moment in the book where she talks about - and this in the 1940s - where she has a fellowship to go on in graduate school in psychology but she has a boyfriend who's saying to her, oh, I'll never get a fellowship like that.
And so she decided not to take the fellowship. The idea of somehow intimidating of this man in her life and making him feel insecure was more important than her own studies. To me that's just an inconceivable choice. It's not one I would make. And I wouldn't respect a man who put me in that position. And that shift across 50 years seems to me that it's just part of women - for many professional women it's just sort of part of our DNA now.
GROSS: Was Betty Friedan controversial in your family?
BAZELON: Betty was not always an easy person. And so I think for my grandmother, who was of Betty's generation but did not have her professional accomplishments, there were moments where Betty was a tricky person for her. But my parents and my sisters and I, I think, experienced her much more as someone we could just enjoy having around.
I mean, she was just so fiery and smart and willing to talk about the issues of the day. And we loved that about her.
GROSS: Do you feel like your version of feminism is different from Betty Friedan's?
BAZELON: I think it is. You know, Betty became in many ways a kind of classic second wave feminist. And I don't share her same assumption that everybody has to work to find meaning in their life. There's a real kind of valorization of labor in her book that is of its moment.
And I think now that we - now that we're past the limitations that she helped knock down, we can embrace what Noreen Malone, who I was writing with in Slate, what she called softer feminism. We can imagine ways in which, you know, we can enjoy the softer aspects of being feminine without feeling like that threatens our professional accomplishments.
GROSS: So how has your relationship to Betty Friedan and your kind of immersion in feminist ideas, whether they were called that or not when you were growing up, how has that influenced you as the mother of two sons?
BAZELON: I feel like it's the most important job I have as a feminist - to raise two boys who are going to appreciate the women in their lives and support them in what they do. I mean, it's something I've benefited tremendously from with my husband whose mother always worked and who sort of takes for granted that what I'm doing is just as important as what he's doing.
And that this is, like, a shared enterprise we have in our family that we're trying - you know, we don't always pull it off so gracefully but we're working it out together.
GROSS: Well, Emily Bazelon, thank you so much for talking with us.
BAZELON: Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Emily Bazelon is the author of a new book about bullying called "Sticks and Stones." She's the senior editor at Slate. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.