Emily Bazelon's new book is Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.
From her Q & A with Emily Yoffe at Slate:
Emily Yoffe: What was the most surprising thing your reporting turned up?Writers Read: Emily Bazelon (September 2007).
Emily Bazelon: One piece of research in particular helped me understand why kids bully—how that can be a rational, if unfortunate, choice. Robert Faris at U.C. Davis mapped social networks in a few different high schools, and he showed that kids behaving aggressively—not physically, but socially—use gossip, exclusion, and attacks on other kids’ reputations to help themselves move up the social ladder. It turned out that for most kids, it didn’t work, in terms of increasing status, to attack someone much weaker. But if you picked on someone near you in the social hierarchy who was a possible rival, that often had a social benefit. It is sort of depressing but important to understand, I think. People ask: Why do kids act this way? But kids are doing what anyone would do: maximizing their social influence. So then the question is: How do we upend this?
Yoffe: Is it even realistic to think you can upend it? Aren’t you talking about a pervasive part of human nature?
Bazelon: Aggression is endemic to human nature, and we wouldn’t want to stamp it out. Kids are not always going to be nice to one another. But bullying is a certain kind of harmful aggression. The agreed-upon definition is that it’s verbal or physical aggression that is repeated over time and involves a power differential. It’s one kid lording it over another, and because it persists, the victim can find it particularly devastating. We can help kids realize this kind of aggression is not the norm, and in the end, it’s not the best way to advance socially, either.
One school I write about did a survey, and the results showed that 90 percent of students there did not exclude other kids at the lunch table. So they put this information on posters around the school, and the incidence of exclusion dropped even further. There’s an analogy here to the campaign against drunk driving. When I was in high school, I felt it was a tiny bit cool to drink and drive. There wasn’t a strong message about how dangerous and wrong it was. But parents, schools, and the media have succeeded in impressing that on kids, and now they are less likely to do it—and the death rate from drunk driving among young people has gone down significantly. There are social problems that seem intractable, but...[read on]