When I was a pre-teen in the early 2000s, it seemed like there was no place in our national discussion for the subject of bullying. Like many people, I regularly had bullies to worry about at school, and I desperately sought journalists, reporters, and publications who had exposed the pervasive issue that I found so damaging and senseless, but the closest thing I could find aside from Rachel Simmons' exceptional book Odd Girl Out was coverage on hazing, which isn't really the same thing.
Much has changed over the last decade, as bullying exploded in the media around three years ago, when 15-year-old Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince hanged herself, and several months later when Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Suddenly the country realized the issue of bullying among youth was a serious problem — one that can have deadly consequences.
Though more awareness on teenage aggression and bullying is absolutely necessary, our nation has a tendency to oversimplify major scandals like these, jump to conclusions, run with false stories, and label too many uncomfortable interactions among people as "bullying."
That's what Columbine author Dave Cullen and Sticks and Stones author/Slate editor Emily Bazelon aimed to discuss at their Wednesday evening New America NYC event on bullying and beyond. Though both writers are connected to Slate, Cullen also finds similarities in their work.
"Our paths sort of crossed in other ways too because we both wound up in this bullying thing in different ways," Cullen said. "It came up in an odd way in my book because it turned out not to be a part of my story ... I was fascinated by the fact that even though Columbine wasn't caused by bullying, Columbine, as you pointed out in your book, became this single driving force that created this anti-bullying movement."
Cullen's book, which was released ten years after the Columbine High School shooting, debunked the theory that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris carried out the massacre as a result of being harassed relentlessly by peers and other students. They weren't bullied victims seeking revenge on their harassers a la Carrie White, but seriously troubled young men, and Cullen's research shows that Harris, the ring leader, was a true sociopath who would have been evil the rest of his life had he lived.
Bazelon faced the same kind of story holes when she started a series on bullying for Slate. When she began investigating the Phoebe Prince story, the nation had painted the late teenage girl as a pariah who'd been driven to suicide by hostile classmates, all of which Boston Globe writer Kevin Cullen described as "the untouchable mean girls."
But as Bazelon noted at Wednesday's event, there was more to the Phoebe Prince story than the mainstream media was feeding to the public. Bazelon went to Prince's school, which news outlets had made out to be "a scary place" of constant bullying and torture, and was surprised by what Prince's classmates had to say about the media's reporting of Prince's untimely passing.
"None of them recognized the portrayal of Phoebe's death or their own social world ... on national television," Bazelon said. "They were very conscious of not blaming the victim, which is something I've also tried to very much take to heart, but they wanted me to know that it was more complicated than that, and essentially that Phoebe before she died was a ninth grader who was dating senior boys and had a lot of social power at her school. And in the end, that sort of crumbled out from under her because she alienated the boys themselves and their girlfriends ... and then the way in which being sexually active was powerful turned into slut-shaming, which I think is a really difficult line for girls to walk. But it just felt like to the kids, like the blaming going on [about] good and evil was a false one."
Once the public has a set idea about how a certain situation played out, the notion becomes difficult to "disembed," Bazelon said. Cullen agreed with Bazelon that media outlets didn't amply research the Prince case before pointing fingers and assigning blame to the students who teased Prince before her suicide.
"I just remember the night on Anderson Cooper's [show when he was] being really indignant and asking 'How could these kids do this?' ... And I was sort of shocked when I read your piece in Slate, like, oh," Cullen told Bazelon. "And [I] was sort of pissed off too. Did anyone from Anderson's show actually go to the school? ... Not only are a couple of details wrong, but the version we get on the TV and the version we saw at the school are nothing like each other."
When things like this are "out of whack," Cullen said, journalists are at a disadvantage, especially when ones like Cullen and Bazelon seek to expose the truth and it's not what the general public wants to hear.
Not only did the nation's coverage on Prince fail to include all the elements to her story, but the reliability of bullying reporting as a whole could be at stake. The good thing about the media's attention to Prince, Clementi, and other high profile students who ended their lives following harassment from classmates is that it opened our country's eyes to the reality that school is a prison for rejects and bullied students.
But when we start to call everything bullying and don't provide all the facts, we do a disservice to the kids who suffer most and are the victim of more than just an eye roll or snarky comment in class.
Bazelon has gotten flak for promoting a similar sentiment and wanting to see more bullying regulation within schools rather than national laws on bullying, but government action will never change the nasty way kids can treat each other. There's a difference between a child who, like Cullen, dreads going to gym class every single day because of the bullying that ensues every day and a young person who confuses bullying for inevitable clashing among peers.
Cullen alluded to this when he said he often receives tweets from people claiming the Columbine killers were "obviously" bullied because they'd written about it in their journals. Cullen said that the boys had only glossed over bullying in their writings, adding, "But even if they complained several times ... is that the same bullying as people being mean to them?"
"I think there's a crucial distinction," Bazelon said. "The way psychologists have defined bullying when they're studying it, the way they're showing this as behavior, a real problem that causes psychological damage is by talking about verbal or physical abuse that is repeated overtime and involves a power imbalance, and if you have all three of those elements, you see something that's chronic and that feels like a campaign to make someone miserable. That's what's associated with higher levels of depression, suicidal thinking, and anxiety even 20 years later ... If you define bullying as every fight and mutual conflict and every instance of someone being mean, you step away from what we know is harmful ... and I think also it makes the problem seem completely intractable .. Because the word is colloquial, we throw it around all the time, doesn't easily lend itself to being limited. And I think that's one of the challenges you were talking about."
"I think it actually loses its effectiveness," Cullen added.
The increase in bullying coverage since the early 2000s has been encouraging, but we have to get it right, and if we call every unkind encounter "bullying," we hurt those who suffer from it most.