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Book Review: Are You Worried About Bullying?

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The first of our new monthly Brain, Mother book review column. Subscribe to our blog and become a randomly chosen winner to receive a free copy of Sticks and Stones.

0-2The 1999 Columbine massacre changed the way we see bullying in schools. Since then 49 states have passed laws addressing bullying. In her recent book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon, a lawyer and journalist, shows how in post-Columbine America bullying has become one of the biggest stories about 21st century childhood.

And, yet, according to Bazelon’s research, things aren’t as dire as you might think. The stats show that somewhere between 15-20% of kids are regularly involved in bullying (either as victims or bullies) and while cases of bullycide are tragic, often there are underlying issues such as mental illness. To make her case Bazelon draws on Scandinavian research, analysis of legal cases, and in-depth investigation of three high profile cases involving children in the Northeast.

Sticks and Stones is divided into four parts; the first two focus on the stories of Monique, Jacob, and Flannery, while the third focuses on a synthesis of research, and the fourth on conclusions and tips to combat bullying. I found Part III to be the most compelling, particularly Chapter 9, “Delete Day,” which concentrates on Bazelon’s visit to Facebook and what the social media giant is doing about cyberbullying.

Bazelon writes: “The electronic incarnation of bullying also changed the equation for adults by leaving a trail.” Kids today care more about having a Facebook account suspended than getting suspended by their schools, so she argues that the company should do more protect teens (Bazelon suggests a simple solution that Facebook make the default settings private for any teenage account holder, which Facebook hasn’t yet done).

This links to one of the major takeaways from Sticks and Stones—that adults and social institutions play a crucial role in bullying.  Whether it be parents not intervening, or even intervening too much especially when it comes to the press, or teachers and school administrators not taking threats seriously and missing signs of serious abuse, our educational system and social media sites play a major role in the “drama” between kids. While Bazelon acknowledges that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between typical drama among teens and bullying, she iterates that the best working definition of bulling is verbal or physical aggression repeated over time that involves a power differential between children. Her portrayal of Flannery’s story, related to the national headline-making “bullycide” of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, illustrates just how complicated this can be: Even after talking with many people over a period of months and pouring over legal documents, Bazelon confesses she still isn’t 100% sure what happened.

As a mom I learned from Sticks and Stones that as involved as I am while my son is a toddler, I need to stay that involved as he ages and engages with peers online and in school. Our work doesn’t stop when the kids head into the schoolyard; whether they are bullies or bullied, they are still our children.

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist who studies childhood, competition, and beauty. Her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, was recently released—and she now contemplates what activities her sons will participate in someday. Visit her website, for more.

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