“Sticks And Stones:” Does Facebook and Twitter Give Bullying More Power?

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Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble

In Emily Bazelon’s latest book, “Sticks and Stones,” the senior editor for Slate argues that the Internet and social media make teen bullying more vicious and challenging to control.

In an interview with the New York Times, Bazelon acknowledges parents’ role in navigating bullying as a tough one: “It’s obviously a huge challenge for parents, finding the balance you strike between protecting kids and expecting them to be a little bit tough, and learn how to stand up for themselves. It starts with that base idea that you have to know your kid, and know what they’re capable of, and give them room to do what they can do — not step in reflexively whenever there’s a problem. I think that builds some resilience in,” she says.

Teaching kids how to safely live on social media is important, as is allowing them to experience some of the painful parts of growing up, but research published this week shows that the effects of bullying are long-lasting and can even lead to psychiatric problems in adulthood. Individuals who reported being involved in bullying experienced anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse or addiction into adulthood. In discussing the study, study author William Copeland of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina told me:

“Bullying is not just a part of childhood, or some sort of a harmless activity between peers. This is actually something that has very detrimental, and very long lasting effects…What this study really suggests is that what goes on at school, and what goes on between peers, may be just as important in understanding their long-term function as what goes on at home. In childhood, when kids are in school, they spend a lot more time with their peers than they do with their parents so we should not be so surprised about this. When we see kids having trouble, we tend to ask them about things going on at home and we don’t tend to ask them how they’re getting along with their peers and whether they’re the victim of bullying. I think we need to rethink that a bit.”

Even bullies can be adversely affected, says Copeland, with higher rates of antisocial personality disorders. TIME’s editor-at-large Belinda Luscombe wrote about her anxiety over whether her young son was a bully:

Since Jamal’s already reached the mocking phase of the anti-bullying initiatives, it’s clear he’s heard about the subject more than once. Like most kids, he knows it’s not O.K. to be a bully, just like we know it’s bad to eat donuts for breakfast. But under certain circumstances, we still do it. Kids switch positions, sometimes by choice, sometimes to prevent themselves from being the victim. In the end, there’s only so much adults can do. All the lessons we try to teach kids aren’t nearly as powerful as the ones they learn themselves.

As Bazelon stresses in her book, the digitial age has made it significantly more difficult for kids to escape their tormentors than when she was bullied as a teen. “It really can make bullying feel like it’s 24/7,” Bazelon tells NPR’s Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “When I got home from school, there was a break. I didn’t have to deal with [my friends] directly, and I could sort of put myself back together in the afternoon and evening. Whereas now when you come home if you’re a victim of bullying, you’re likely to see this continue on a social media site or via texting.”

Bazelon also covers the struggle parents encounter in trying to understand the active and potentially dangerous role technology plays in children’s day-to-day lives, and the difficulty schools have in determining their responsibility in their students’ online lives. Here are some essential parenting tips for dealing with cyberbullying from TIME’s interviews with experts Elizabeth Englander, author of Understanding Violence, and Jonathan Singer at the Temple University School of Social Work:

  • Make sure your kids know cyberbullying is wrong.
  • Take an interest in your kids’ online behavior. Kids tend to think their parents don’t know or care about their online lives.
  • Check school policies on cyberbullying. If there is one, discuss it with your kids.
  • Set guidelines about cell-phone use.
  • Help your children respond appropriately if they are cyberbullied. Talk to them about what happened and how they feel. Report the abuse to the website on which it occurred, and report the bullying to school administrators and ask them to look after your children.