GFS grad gets personal while discussing the book she wrote on bullying

About 100 parents, students, alumni and faculty gathered at Germantown Friends School’s Yarnell Auditorium on Sunday night to hear GFS grad Emily Bazelon discuss her new book, “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.”

Bazelon — a senior editor at Slate and the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School — noted that her coverage of the Phoebe Prince suicide for Slate in 2010 was the basis for a book that delves into the pain and social power of bullying.

Personal recollections

The East Falls native shared stories of bullying from when she was a GFS eighth grader.

“I had a group of close friends and, as girls that age often do, they turned on me,” said Bazelon. “It was a pretty painful moment and I spent a lot of time crying. One of the things my parents did that was really helpful is that they really listened to me about it. It helped me feel like I wouldn’t be hated forever.”

Dr. Craig Stevens, GFS’s head psychologist, moderated the question-and-answer portion of the event.

He said social-media websites have changed the bullying landscape.

Ever-present bullying

“They are never out of touch with each other,” Stevens said.

Bazelon concurred.

“It can make it feel like this 24/7 experience for kids, and I think that has a big impact both on targets and bullies,” she said. “Instead of coming home from school and getting a break from the trouble with their peers, it continues online or with text messages.”

Bazelon said bullies may not think about what they’re doing because it’s so easy to press send. On sites like Facebook, they act as if they are “performing in front of a large audience.”

“On social-media sites, they are in a position to do a lot of damage rather thoughtlessly,” Bazelon said. “There are a lot of kids who are lashing out without quite understanding what they are doing, and they’re not incapable of learning empathy. They are not in a face-to-face situation where they might be more likely to moderate what they are doing based on someone’s reaction.”

Is there more bullying today?

From there, Stevens asked Bazelon several questions: “Are we turning into a nation of bullies? Are kids just being kids or our kids becoming more wimpy? What’s wrong with just letting kids fight their own battles?”

Bazelon answered that data shows it’s not on the rise.

“When you look at studies in several countries in the last 25 years, it’s pretty steadily held that between 20 percent to 25 percent of kids are involved in bullying … as victims, bullies or bystanders,” she said, noting that media sensationalism makes it seem more prevalent. “It gets this very black-and-white scenario. Most things in life are not like that when you dig into them.

“I worry about the kids who become the symbols for bullies because there is a real stigmatizing effect of that word. I am not trying to excuse their conduct. I just think they kind of bear a disproportionate burden for what is a shared problem.”

What can schools,  parents and bystanders do?

Bazelon said creating an anti-bullying culture, and fostering relationships between adults and students, is integral, even if it doesn’t eliminate the problem.

She cited a recent survey that found most youths did not tell an adult about bullying in their lives and said it’s critical for parents to guide kids as they “enter this new world.”

“It’s hard. My 13-year-old son does not want me looking over his shoulder, but I feel like when he first gets on these sites, I want to walk him through it,” Bazelon said. “I don’t want to just set him loose in the same way that I would not open the door at midnight and tell him to go for a walk.”

Bazelon also encouraged parents to ensure their children set their privacy settings high and to not “friend” everybody who sends a request.

“Companies like Facebook set the default settings for kids, which means that you share everything you write with not only your friends but their friends,” Bazelon said. “For teenagers, that can easily be a few thousand people because they often collect friends and they think it’s rude to say no.”

When a parent asked about youths who do nothing when they see bullying, she said intervention happens about 20 percent of the time. When they do step up, they stop the bullying half the time.

“You don’t actually have to confront a bully in that moment,” Bazelon said. “You can go up to the victim afterwards or send them a text message. I think one message for kids is that you don’t have to take on the whole burden of friendship. … You don’t have to decide to be their best friend to make a huge difference for them.”

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