Arts & Culture

Sense and sensitivity

Curbing bullying takes clear heads and thoughtful bystanders.

Carlo Rotella ’94PhD is director of American Studies at Boston College. His latest book is Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.

I confess to a certain impatience with the antibullying program implemented by the public schools in the city where I live. The students’ new eagerness to mislabel any interpersonal unpleasantness as bullying wears on me. So does the campaign’s theme song, set to the tune of the teenybopper hit “Call Me Maybe.” (“Hey, when you’re really sad, we need to say this / Be kind to others, and use Olweus”—more on Olweus shortly.) I am tempted to see it all as the result of an adult alarmism that seems especially exaggerated because the kid culture around here is the gentlest I’ve ever seen.

But whenever my patience with antibullying fervor grows short, I remind myself of how I came to live in my current home. We bought it from a family that moved out after an incident in which, according to the local newspaper, the man of the house stormed over to the neighborhood school (which my kids now attend) and confronted a middle-school boy he believed had been picking on a member of his household. The police said that the man screamed obscenities at the perp, threw him down on an outdoor basketball court, and tussled with school employees who intervened. He was arrested and banned from school grounds, the family put their home up for sale, and that’s how I came to live in this peaceable place.

This tale exemplifies three of the main themes of Emily Bazelon’s well-argued, thoroughly reported, and admirably level-headed book about bullying and its remedies.

First, it can be tricky to distinguish bullying from the status rivalries and other nastiness that kids lump under the broader rubric of “drama.” The local newspaper used altercation and other general terms to describe the event that set off the angry dad, in which a boy came home upset after being hit in the ankle with a baseball. But the angry dad clearly saw it as part of a larger and more specific pattern, one conforming to the definition of bullying established more than 40 years ago by the influential Swedish researcher Dan Olweus: verbal or physical aggression repeated over time and featuring a power differential.

Even clear-cut cases of bullying give rise to conflicting accounts and interpretations. Bazelon, the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School, offers the wrenching example (based on a series of investigative pieces she wrote for Slate, where she is a senior editor) of the suicide of Phoebe Prince, the high schooler in Massachusetts who became sadly famous for having been bullied to death. Bazelon is compassionate in detailing Phoebe’s suffering, but she’s also tough-minded in showing how both prosecution and press misrepresented the extent and nature of the bullying, elided Phoebe’s own agency and preexisting depression, and ignored significant variations in culpability and involvement among the accused bullies in the rush to characterize them as a uniform pack of impossibly cruel monsters.

Bazelon is especially compelling when examining adults’ escalation of crises triggered by kids’ meanness, the second of her main themes that resonates with my story of the angry dad. When parents, teachers, administrators, and other adults do take action against bullying they tend to favor responses that don’t work: sue everyone, expel every kid who’s ever mean, kick the bully’s ass yourself. Or they encourage the victim to stand up to the bully, a Hollywood-endorsed solution (think Harrison Ford in Witness) that typically runs afoul of bullies’ expertise in picking weaker or less aggressive victims. Bazelon cites research showing that “victims who strike back against bullies often prolong or worsen their social woes,” and they earn extra beatings, too.

So, what does work? It’s demonstrably possible to change a school’s culture so that kids and adults no longer regard bullying—or, crucially, their own silence about it—as acceptable. The research shows that things usually get better when a bystander steps in, even if it’s a fellow student of low status who doesn’t directly confront a bully. It may seem counterintuitive to concentrate on third parties, rather than on bully or victim, but that’s the key to success.

Bullying can be stopped, but it takes a village. That’s the third of Bazelon’s themes I can also trace in the story of the angry dad, whose actions had the unintended useful consequence of inspiring open discussion of a culture of meanness afflicting the neighborhood school’s middle grades. The upshot was a new honor code emphasizing respect and kindness, followed a few years later by a district-wide antibullying campaign based on the work of Olweus.

If Bazelon’s story were restricted to the flesh-and-blood world, I would come away from it on this note of uplift. But the Internet has opened up a new frontier for bullying, a boundless space of disembodied anonymity and impunity where people play less-than-humane characters who write things they would be ashamed to say face-to-face. For better or worse, a community’s norms don’t exert the same force online, and (for worse) character and empathy are typically in shorter supply.

Bazelon explores the resulting complications, including legal ones raised when schools regulate out-of-school online behavior. She also talks her way into the offices of the underwhelmingly vigilant Safety Team at Facebook, a company unmotivated to devote resources to any policy, even its own antiharassment regulations, that can’t be enforced by an algorithm and might inhibit the flow of information for profit.

Bazelon makes clear that “bullying, wherever it takes place, is not on the rise. It feels more pervasive only because the web is pervasive. What has exploded is our interest in the harm kids can inflict on each other.” We have reliable ways to address that harm at school, thanks to Olweus and others. But even the most ambitiously comprehensive program for changing a school’s culture can’t address in full the challenge that Internet chatter poses to traditional notions of community and individual responsibility.

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