Ten Things You Missed at the Harvard Forum on Bullying

Emily Bazelon spoke to a packed auditorium at the School of Education.

On Monday evening Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, spoke to a packed auditorium at the Harvard School of Education. Here’s what you missed:

1. Bullying, defined: According to Bazelon, bullying is harassment that repeats over time and involves a power imbalance. It’s not garden-variety “kids-will-be-kids” roughhousing. It is not teasing. And it’s not normal.

2. Bullying, in context: Bullying isn’t necessarily more widespread than it was in the past. But we are more aware of it now, in part because modern-day bullying spills from the playground onto the computer screen, smartphone, and Facebook page, allowing more people, including parents, to witness the cruelty. Cultural awareness of bullying has experienced two recent waves: the first around 2001, shortly after the Columbine massacre, and the second, after the suicide of Phoebe Prince in 2010, which inspired state legislatures to get more serious about preventing bullying.

3. Bullying, law in Massachusetts: According to Bazelon, the Massachusetts bullying prevention law is very strong compared to other states. (In 2010 she even wrote an article subtitled, “Massachusetts just passed the be country’s best anti-bullying law.”) Not only is the Massachusetts state law strict, it’s backed up by the funding necessary to make it work, a situation states like New Jersey, now experiencing major funding problems for its anti-bullying efforts, can only dream of.

4. Bullying, the mindset of a perpetrator: Bazelon says there are different kinds of bullies: the old-fashioned prototype of the big, brutish boy; the mean girl who deliberately uses bullying to gain status (note: boys can fall under the “mean girl” category too); and bully-victims, who act out their anger at being bullied themselves and are at the greatest risk for mental illness. She said kids who bully construct a rivalry that doesn’t really exist, imagining the person they’re bullying to be much more powerful than they actually are.

5. Bullying, anatomy of a fight: Bullying almost always happens in front of an audience. Research indicates that, in about one in five cases, someone intervenes when bullying is taking place. In 50 percent of those cases, the intervention works, but Bazelon is quick to point out how hard it is to be a so-called “upstander” (as opposed to a passive bystander) in a bullying situation. Instead of forcing kids to put themselves at physical risk, she points to research by Stan Davis, author of Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention. Davis has shown that damage from bullying can be minimized if the victim experiences small moments of empathy from others—a kind text, gesture, or word after the fact.

6. Bullying, school atmosphere as a cause of: A chaotic school environment sets up a climate where kids will be cruel to one another. If teachers are mean and bickering, the kids will mimic that behavior. Bazelon wishes more schools would adopt the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program, which encourages teachers to recognize the ordinary good deeds that students do rather than focusing all their attention on negative behavior.

7. Bullying, effects of punishment as prevention for: Bazelon thinks schools wrongly emphasize punishment as opposed to prevention. She says research has shown that suspension doesn’t deter bullying. Instead, schools should adopt long-term strategies to change the culture of schools from the ground up. Parents can help by starting early, giving their toddlers concrete words to help them regulate their feelings.

8. Bullying, need for parents to step up: Citing the work of interviewer Rick Weisbourd, a professor at the Harvard Ed School author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, Bazelon says there is a deep societal need for parents to teach empathy and character building rather than achievement and individual happiness to their kids.

9. Bullying, long-term effects of: Studies show that bullying is associated with long-term psychological harm. The damaging effects of bullying can be felt 20 years after it takes place.

10. Bullying, what happens when we look away: When asked if adults are doing too much micromanaging around bullying and should just let the kids work it out themselves, Bazelon said, “When adults take a hands-off approach, there is always a kid on the losing side of that equation.”