Social Climate Change

Flickr/Twentyfour Students

Like all mammals, human beings can be cruel. As we create hierarchies, we use social or physical power to hurt, manipulate, and get what we want. But unlike other mammals, we periodically reconceptualize our cruelties, declaring behaviors that were once acceptable to be crimes against God and humankind. Campaigners transformed slavery, once seen as biblically endorsed, into the sin of sins. Wife-beating and marital rape, once judicious uses of husbandly authority, are now illegal domestic violence. These behaviors continue, of course—we’re still mammals—but they’ve switched categories, from acceptable to punishable.

Consider bullying. Until recently, learning to handle even the nastiest of schoolmate struggles was treated as a normal part of childhood, a kind of social vaccination. If you couldn’t navigate the treacherous waters of a school lunchroom, how would you ever swim through office or factory politics? In her carefully reported Sticks and Stones, Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon describes how that understanding changed as researchers and advocates made the new topic of bullying into a nationwide concern. The shift came after decades of effort, sped along by two events: the arrival of new social communication technologies, which have exposed once-hidden behavior, and Columbine, which was initially (and incorrectly) blamed on bullying. As Bazelon writes, “Before 1999, no states had laws that clearly addressed bullying; now forty-nine do.”

In 2009, as Bazelon’s children were edging toward middle school, she persuaded Slate to let her do a series on cyber-bullying. To her surprise, Bazelon found that the research showed no epidemic—both the amount of bullying and the percentage of American children who are either predators or prey have remained steady. But with Facebook, Twitter, texting, and other 24/7 technologies, the problem feels more pervasive, and it has become easier to prove. No longer is home a haven; outcast students can check on what their tormenters are saying at any hour. Humiliations that once might have been witnessed by only 2 or 5 or 20 kids are permanently displayed for hundreds, thousands, even millions to see. For better and worse, those watching include adults who, faced with this evidence, now have a harder time dismissing children’s complaints.

A few months after Bazelon started her beat, Phoebe Prince—a freshman at a South Hadley, Massachusetts, high school—hanged herself. According to locally influential Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, she did so because a posse of mean girls “followed Phoebe around, calling her a slut. … The name-calling, the stalking, the intimidation was relentless.” After a final encounter with the girls, he wrote, Phoebe went home and took her life. The local district attorney charged six students with such related crimes as statutory rape, civil-rights violations, criminal harassment, disturbance of a school assembly, and stalking. The infotainment media swooped in on the story about the pretty white teen’s death.

But when Bazelon investigated, she found a far more complicated story. Phoebe, who grew up in Ireland, had recently been moved by her mother to South Hadley in part to get her away from her pattern of soap-operatic sexual entanglements, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts. Once there, she repeated her self-destructive drinking, drugs, emotional extremes, self-harm, and sleeping with boys who had girlfriends and would reject her. After each encroachment on other girls’ boyfriends, girls—especially but not only the girlfriends—accused her of being a slut. One girl threw a soda can at her. As appalling as this “slut-shaming” was, Bazelon found no one who had hounded Phoebe for months. Rather, the troubled girl had had separate battles with separate peers. Having arrived as the exciting Irish girl, she had seemed dangerously attractive and powerful. No one knew, as Bazelon writes in Sticks and Stones, that underneath the veneer she was desperate and vulnerable.

Bazelon’s reporting was controversial. Some found her sociological autopsy cold, even callous. I was riveted by the evenhanded call for a more accurate accounting. Why wasn’t there more mental-health intervention for a teen with such a disturbed and disturbing history? Why was it easier to blame a “mean girls” posse than a school culture in which troubled children slide through the cracks? I admired Bazelon’s willingness to take seriously recent advances in our understanding of bullying—and also to see that this shiny new concept can be misused and overused. As we know from social psychology, any new danger (West Nile virus, say) holds our attention far more than a humble one that’s been around for a while (influenza), even if the familiar threat is more common and itself too dangerous to ignore. In this case, the new danger was taking the blame for more than it deserved.


Bazelon reports on three bullying stories. In her first week in middle school in Middletown, Connecticut, Monique McClain, a sensitive, high-achieving child of a working single mother, falls prey to two girls, Destiny and Cheyenne, who mock her “copycat” hairstyle, blow smoke in her face, and sit next to her every day on the bus to taunt, curse, and torment her. Her mother’s attempts to intervene backfire. More girls pick on Monique, expanding their bullying into online posts. “I fucking hate yhu with all my heart. Yhur a bitch & … Yhur a fucking snitch & + I just wanna like beat you the fuck up.”

Through Monique’s story, Bazelon introduces the social science of bullying, beginning with its reigning academic, Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus. According to Bazelon, Olweus is to bullying what Catharine Mac-Kinnon is to sexual harassment: the researcher who defined it in 1969, made it visible as a problem, and has crusaded ever since to treat it. Olweus came up with the now-standard definition of bullying, with its three criteria.

[I]t had to be verbal or physical aggression that was repeated over time and that involved a power differential—one or more children lording their status over another. … A onetime episode of meanness or violence could be bad in the moment, but it was the repetition and the power imbalance that were most often associated with lasting, scarring impact.

Olweus’s research, borne out by others since, revealed that about 5 percent of boys are “pronounced bullies,” while another 5 percent are targets, or what he calls “whipping boys.” Further research has supported his findings that bullying can lead to anxiety, depression, health problems, bad relationships, and susceptibility to addiction. Victims like Monique tend to fit a profile. They’re sensitive and anxious, and if boys, they are physically weaker than others.

Bullies are more varied than victims. In Bazelon’s taxonomy, they include the thug-in-training; the clueless bully who doesn’t understand how he affects others; the hybrid victim-bully; the socially popular shark; and what students call the “Facebook thug,” who trash-talks online despite meekness in person. Recent social science shows that too much online communication can be emotional junk food, isolating and inflaming aggressions, while new neurological research offers evidence, as if we needed it, that teens’ brains are wired to be impulsive and tuned in to peer approval and are more vulnerable than the brains of children or adults to these effects.

Bazelon also uses Monique’s story to explore ongoing power and relationship struggles among equals, which young people and researchers lately call “drama.” A girl cuts a grade-school friend out of her clique. A boy dates someone else’s girlfriend. Classmates take sides. That’s drama, and letting students work it out—preferably with adult guidance but not intervention—can help build resilience and character. “Drama allowed for shifting power dynamics and competition over social status,” Bazelon writes. “As the kids used it, the word described far more teenage conflict than the narrower definition of bullying, with its settled hierarchy of powerful and powerless.”

But the line between drama and bullying can be thin, and it depends on the emotional wherewithal and social status of the two involved. Had Destiny and Cheyenne mocked each other’s hairstyles, each would have given back as good (or bad) as she got. At Monique’s school, more than a third of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Test scores are lower than the state’s average, and the administration has basically ceded the buses and the halls to students. As Bazelon depicts it, putdowns were each day’s lingua franca; strutting and social aggression were the way to survive. The other girls felt they couldn’t afford empathy for someone like Monique. While the individual girls might indeed have been bullies from whom Monique needed rescuing, the real problem was the larger school climate. (After wrestling with her journalistic versus her human standards, Bazelon decided she had to intervene and helped Monique find another school placement.)

Transforming a school from cold to compassionate, as large a prescription as that might be, still isn’t enough when a child is bullied specifically because he or she is disabled, gay, or has some other oft-persecuted quality. Bazelon tells the story of Jacob, an 11-year-old, effeminate, openly gay boy in a football-crazy town in upstate New York. When Jacob is mocked, pushed down the stairs, and has his belongings smashed, teachers suggest that he tone down his behavior. When Jacob punches one of his repeat tormenters, he’s given detention and forced to eat lunch (for a week!) with his hater. When his life seems in danger, the principal suggests homeschooling.

Would calling all this “bullying” have helped? The work to protect LGBT teens started before concerns about bullying gained wider momentum. Beginning in 1991, a few brave gay adults (brave because they knew that, by talking about LGBT students, they’d be accused of being pedophiles or of “recruiting” in schools) launched gay-straight alliances that helped undo individual schools’ hostility. In 1996, Lambda Legal won a landmark decision for Jamie Nabozny, who sued his Wisconsin high school for allowing other students to brutalize him, urinate on him, pretend to rape him in class, and kick him until he required surgery.

Nabozny’s settlement, at close to $1 million, put schools on notice. Bazelon reports, however, that as late as 2009, a study found that 85 percent of LGBT kids still said they’d been verbally harassed at school. Nearly 20 percent had been physically assaulted. Evidence has accumulated showing that unless anti-bullying initiatives include specific attention to LGBT concerns, they won’t help. Jacob’s school hosted none of the proven anti--discrimination initiatives, no gay-straight alliances, no explicit naming of sexual orientation and gender presentation as grounds for protection. Jacob’s world didn’t get better until his parents transferred him to another school.

The message of the anti-bullying movement isn’t, it turns out, about individual bullies or victims, although these must be dealt with. It’s about the school at large. At Phoebe Prince’s school, as at so many schools, “slut shaming”—the feminist neologism for making girls feel worse than boys about their sexuality—was chronic. Phoebe wasn’t picked on in particular; any girl who stepped outside the accepted borders of female sexual behavior would have been given the scarlet letter “S”—even while boys were excused or lauded for their conquests. As Bazelon notes, that double standard hurts all girls.

Probing the gap between Phoebe’s reality and the media oversimplification, Bazelon reveals a despairing girl turning to the wrong people for support, showing her burn wounds (perhaps from drug use, perhaps self-inflicted) to a counselor, but killing herself before anyone offered effective help:

Amid all the finger-pointing over bullying prevention, however, a key point got lost: Phoebe’s death was preceded by the reddest red flag for suicide. That problem is depression. … Since bullying can contribute to making teens depressed, it’s a risk factor. But it’s not the only factor, or even necessarily the main one. … “That jump to causality is so easy and heart wrenching and sensational,” Columbia University psychiatrist Madelyn Gould told me.

In Bazelon’s reporting on kids’ turbulent emotional lives, allegations are sourced and differing perspectives detailed with an investigative reporter’s precision. But her focus on highly particular facts becomes a weakness when the book turns to potential solutions.

Since hostile use of social--networking technologies is part of the problem, Bazelon gets Facebook to let her observe firsthand the company’s anti-bullying efforts. But a day at corporate headquarters that should be interesting is instead tediously detailed. She’s startled that complaints can wait months for review and taken aback when employees spend mere seconds to rule on each abuse report. “Facebook shouldn’t be in the business of dictating and enforcing community norms. People should enforce their own norms,” Arturo Bejar, the director of engineering tells her. Bazelon concludes, “Facebook is expressing sympathy and giving good advice, but leaving it to kids to help themselves. I still wonder whether the company can hand off a large part of enforcing the site’s rules to individual users.”

Surely, by this stage in her research, Bazelon can offer stronger judgment. Do we need laws, rules and regulations, pressure groups? What public policies should the country be considering? She believes that problem bullying is an offshoot of a school culture in which students accumulate social power through cruelty; she advocates changing the equation by making that socially costly. Although she details different programs aimed at the problem, she fails to synthesize and tell us what works and why.

Perhaps this is the flip side of nuance. After reading Monique’s story, I could see every participant’s point of view. For Monique, her tormenters are social vultures, picking her apart for sport. From her mother’s point of view, the administration’s failure to stop her daughter’s pain is heartless. Her fellow students can’t afford to care about a girl who fails at the game they have to play every day. The heavily burdened staff feels it can’t solve every private problem in a school overflowing with them.

But from the new anti-bullying point of view, the administration’s failure to create a humane environment conducive to learning—not just for Monique but for all students who’ve learned to wear armor to get through the day—is an educational emergency. By the book’s end, Bazelon had won me over to the idea that so long as we don’t use the concept of bullying to foreclose discussion of other problems, so long as we think not just about individual bullies but about social climate change, this too might join other public revolutions in how we view formerly privatized cruelties like sexual harassment and child abuse. Bazelon closes by calling for a newfound focus on teaching character, empathy, and respect. No matter what the latest concept of cruelty, isn’t that always the lesson?

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