Twelve years ago, my mom and dad decided it was time for me to leave northern California for a while.
I was a discouraged, unmotivated seventh grader who frequently had nightmares about school, as it was a place of constant torment and humiliation, so my family pulled me out of class for two weeks to spend time with my grandparents in a sleepy Florida retirement town, where people got up at 5 a.m. everyday and I was the youngest person around. I immediately took a liking to the sunshine state, not because it was warm and relaxed, but because it was as far as I could get from school bullies who constantly reminded me that I wasn't smart enough, sophisticated enough, or pretty enough to exist in their living space.
Sticks and Stones author Emily Bazelon would agree that someone in my position would not be able to escape bullying today simply by going on a cross-country trip. Facebook, Myspace, iPhones, and technological advancements have made it possible for children to be harassed 24/7 no matter where they are in the world, and that's partly why bullying prevention needs our full attention today.
Bazelon, who is a senior editor at Slate, visited the 86th Street Barnes & Noble on Thursday night to discuss her book, which aims to defeat the bullying culture and "[rediscover] the power of character and empathy."
Noting the tragic suicide of South Hadley, Mass., teenager Phoebe Prince, Bazelon mentioned that bullying nowadays is especially harmful because of social media, which teens use to fire insults at each other and about those they don't like. In the book, Bazelon notes a Facebook thread titled "Let's Start Drama" in which students publish "hot or not"-esque notes. Bazelon goes on to point out that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg did the same thing during the pioneer days of the site, suggesting that it's no surprise his social media platform causes so much pain and suffering among young people today, as it was founded on hurtful comparisons and cruelty.
Bazelon also introduces audience members to the term "Facebook thug," a kid who acts tough and nasty on the internet but meek and quiet in real life. This makes it easy for anyone to be a bully, whether in person, online, or both.
Bullying has been a problem forever, but cyberbullying takes teasing to another level and must be stopped. It has seemingly influenced the high-profile suicides of Prince, Tyler Clementi, Jamey Rodemeyer, and Seth Walsh, to name a few. Since their deaths, there has been an increase in bullying media coverage, with celebrities coming forward with anti-bullying movements, organizations, and messages to stand with those who feel alone and rejected.
While it seems promising to have public figures try to put a stop to bullying, the problem isn't any less serious now than it was a decade ago, when the only media even close to bullying surrounded hazing.
Luckily, bullied kids tend to come out ahead in the long run. When I asked Bazelon whether she believed there was any truth to bestselling author Alexandra Robbins' book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth (in which my own experiences with bullying are featured), which attests that children who are taunted for being different grow up to be successful and extraordinary adults, Bazelon said yes, even though research suggests harassers tend to earn a higher income as adults.
"I love this argument, and as myself, I believe it to be my own story," Bazelon, who read the book, said. "There's research that suggests otherwise. Over the summer, this totally depressing study came out that says kids who are more popular in high school make more money later and control the socioeconomics ... I don't like this study but it suggests it's more complicated. It is true, there are some kids who were nerdy and couldn't be the popular kids in high school but they're going to be OK in the end."
Another audience member pointed out that popular students tend to be the most attractive kids in school and that their looks could give them a professional boost as grown-ups.
"I think the research didn't take into account physical attributes," Bazelon went on. "Height is a really important thing to take into account, but I do think there's a truth to [Robbins' argument] and it actually makes me feel a little bit bad for the bullies in some ways. These girls have a lot of power now, but this is it for them."
It's good for former nerds like us. Regardless, it wasn't easy for women such as me and Bazelon to get through school, and no matter how many times my parents told me everything would be OK, nothing took away from the fact that I had a lot of awful things going on at the time.
With books such and Bazelon's and Robbins', students will see that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel and that their bullying experiences aren't being ignored. It's important for the media to continue spreading awareness of school bullying and cyberbullying through books and beyond.
We're not going to minimize this dangerous, life-altering problem until more people hop on board and see that kids aren't just joking around, and they haven't been for a while.