The Emily Bazelon interview

April 19, 2013

You'd think that with the It Gets Better project and a lower tolerance for bad behavior, bullying would be on its way out as a social phenomenon. Unfortunately, it seems like every day another story comes out about someone who took his or her own life due to torment they received from their peers. Today's interviewee has been very busy discussing what she learned while researching her book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. In addition to that, she is a writer and senior editor of Slate, where she edits the legal column, "Jurisprudence",  is co-editor of its blog on women's issues, XX Factor and regularly appears on Political Gabfest, a weekly Slate podcast with David Plotz and John Dickerson. She is also a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Mother Jones, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, and other publications.  You can find out more about her here.

If you had to choose between your child being a bully or being the victim of bullying, which would you pick?
If I had to choose—of course I would rather not--I would actually rather have my kids be targets. The reason is not actually that I think that would make their lives easier. When you look at the research, the targets of bullying (now, it doesn’t happen to everyone)—but most kids can overcome this kind of adversity, but there is a higher risk of psychological problems in the short term and long term. And there also is a link to low academic performance. And I just care enormously about my kids’ treating other people well. It would kill me if they were singling out another kid to persecute them, which is what I think bullying is--that’s the definition I think we should use. My book has made me think a lot as a parent about whether we collectively emphasize individual achievement and happiness more than we do moral development and the sense of the collective good as we’re raising our kids.

When I was a kid, I was really obsessed with my friends talking about me, and when you write online, that happens in real time. So I’ve sort of been amazed by the thick skin that I’ve been able to build up over time writing online because you can’t take it all to heart. I wonder whether you’ve noticed if kids have been able to develop any coping mechanisms in terms of dealing with online bullying, or whether being able to take it or ignore comes more with adulthood.
You know, I haven’t seen anyone compare adults and kids. My sense is that kids are not going to be as good at having a thick skin. I agree with you, I try to have a thick skin, but a lot of adults actually don’t. I think the issue with kids is that developmentally speaking, they’re just more vulnerable. They don’t have it all figured out. It’s harder sometimes for them to have perspective, even to separate the short term from the long term, right? I think that cyber bullying can be really damaging for kids. Luckily, as we were saying earlier, that’s not always the case, and most kids can make it through. But when you see some of the cruelty that goes on online, it’s not surprising to see findings for example, that 25% of 12 and 13-year-old girls say that they saw something written online that made them not want to go to school the next day. That kind of finding suggests we’re not talking about stuff that every kid can just shrug off.

How do you know, based on being a mom but also the research you’ve done, what’s the fine line between letting the kids work it out for themselves and when do authority figures intervene?
I feel like, you take your cue from your kid. You listen and talk to your kid really carefully about what’s going on. If you feel like your kid is becoming withdrawn and depressed and it’s continuing over a significant period of time, then you have to step in. I don’t think that your first instinct should be to jump in and try to intervene in a really policing sort of way, because a lot of times kids do need space to solve their own conflicts. If you talk to your kid, they may not want you to take that kind of step, because they’ll be worried about what the consequences will be with their peers. Sometimes you have to override children about those types of instincts. But I think it’s a good idea to start off relatively cautiously. One thing I always say, is that parents should talk to kids about what they think the solution should be. Because then you end up often with both an attempt at a solution that makes more sense, but also you’re giving kids the capacity to problem-solve. One of the hallmarks of resilience is that you learn to believe that when you work hard to make a problem better and to overcome adversity, you’re going to succeed. So it seems like in here is an opportunity for parents to really help kids build up exactly the kind of skills they need later in life to overcome problems, because obviously they are going to face trouble and conflict later on.

Do you think bullied kids have it easier now, because more people have an eye out for them? Or is it harder, because of the internet?
I think the internet can make it harder because it feels very 24/7 and prevalent to kids, and they can feel exposed in front of a bigger audience. There’s the sense of the visibility of the bullying, and the permanence of it. But I think you’re also right about the heightened awareness--it just totally depends where you are. There is still a big problem with teachers turning a blind eye and underreacting. At the same time, we are seeing more vigilance and in some cases overreacting. It’s this weird moment culturally where both of those things are going on.

Is it realistic to try to raise your kids offline?
Forever? No. The way I think about it is this: As much delay as you can and then taking it step by step. So, I don’t think that having ten and 11 year olds on social media sites is a good idea, and I’m always amazed when parents just sort of seem to be like, “Oh, I couldn’t stop them!” Well, why not? Don’t they live in your house?

They didn’t want to try to stop them.
Yeah, exactly! I don’t really get that. At the same time there’s some point at which access to the technology becomes a really important form of social capital. When I was growing up, my parents hated that I talked on the phone, but if they had taken the phone away from me entirely, that would have left me out of all kinds of things, right?

I had parents who were strict with televisionwe didn’t have cable when I was a kid, and I wasn’t allowed to watch prime time TV until we were a certain age.
I think limit setting is really helpful in this context. Some of the examples I give are like, maybe you feel your 13 year old is ready for a phone. But does your teen need a smart phone or would a “dumb” phone, that doesn’t have the internet and doesn’t have a camera would be a better match for what he can really handle technologically. That is the choice we have been making for our own son, who just actually lost his dumb phone! Perhaps he’s not ready for the much more expensive item he would like to have. There are ways you can limit access in terms of hours of the day. One night, we realized our 13-year-old was sleeping with his phone under his pillow. It was innocent--he just wanted to know how a friend of his had done on her basketball game. But like, he doesn’t need to know that at 10:30 at night. And also, what if he had gotten an upsetting message late, after we were all asleep, then what, you know? It seems like nothing good can come of any of that. There’s no reason he needs the phone in the middle of the night. So we made a rule that the phones sleep downstairs and the people sleep upstairs.

Have you noticed since your book has come out any changes from any social media platforms, or schools that are in line with your book in terms of trying to counteract or prevent bullying?
I think schools are becoming more and more aware of this. I hear about things like the “delete day” idea that I wrote about, which isn’t my idea but I highlighted that idea—I’ve heard that other schools are taking that on. I think the social media companies have been studiously ignoring this whole conversation and the only way that’s going to change is if we their customers demand from them that they change how they deal with teenagers.

One thing that frightens me, with having a little baby, is that the whole conversation that’s happening right now about bullying is scary enough, but then I think, something will come along that will make it even easier for him to make someone’s life or have his life made into a living hell. Facebook and Twitter will be so over.
Well, it’s happening already--the kids are migrating on to Instagram and Twitter, as their parents are slightly more clued in. I don’t know what the next next thing will be—of course I don’t know that, I’m like the lamest early adopter ever. And also the whole point is that adults aren’t supposed to know, right? But, I do think this: The reason why I wrote in the Atlantic about Henry Lieberman (at MIT), about his idea of an algorithm to help prevent cyberbullying, is I think that right now we are being too passive about the underlying architecture of the web and just assuming there’s nothing to be done about it. The only thing we can do is throw up our hands. I just cannot believe that is true. These are sophisticated companies with an enormous level of resources. If they wanted to make these online environments take into account teenagers’ social welfare, they could figure it out how to do it. They could work with schools--they could just simply give school administrators and guidance counselors an email dropbox where they could send Hey! Help! kind of alerts. And none of that is happening right now. This is the Mark Zuckerberg line: privacy is an evolving standard, i.e. we will just have less and less of it--and that’s just the way it is? But no, we have control over these norms.

When you were on Stephen Colbert and you made him cry, I was just curious to know how that went down ahead of time: What you were told, how did the bit came together, who came up with it and so on?
I’ve been on Colbert a few times now. The producer had called me and we had talked about my book, but I didn’t know Colbert was going to ask that question. I have thought about it... I figured that either he was going to accuse me of being a bully or he was going to ask me whether he was a bully. It seemed like an obvious way for the show to go. They’re very wary of anything that sounds rehearsed or canned. I will say, having been on a few times, I realize it’s all about the situational, in-the-moment comedy. It’s because he’s incredibly quick, he’s really good at it. You just try to say your thing and see what comes of it.

You’ve talked about raising your sons to be feminists. What practical things have you told them so far about how they should interact with girls? I’m thinking back to when my brother was growing up my mom told him to always say yes if a girl asks him to dance.
Oh that’s great, I’m gonna steal that one! I love that!  I have said to my sons, you have to treat girls and women well, as a basic baseline, and that boys who are good listeners... girls really value that. That’s something they should really make sure to try and develop. I don’t go around preaching about feminism very much in my house, just because “preaching”—I mean, my kids roll their eyes.

I read that poor Hanna Rosin’s son is sick of her it seems.
I know, I know, Jacob. I used to write a family column about my kids for Slate but then I stopped because they were getting old enough that people were starting to ask them about it and I felt it was enough. Which is too bad in some ways because they’re only continuing to be more and more hilarious as they get older. It’s not that I never mention them, I mean, I’m talking about them with you. So I would say that what I mostly feel about my kids, is that they are seeing their parents with not a whole lot of aplomb. My husband and I juggle things together all the time. He isn’t very involved in their lives and I don’t think they have the idea. They have been surprised when they have learned that women didn’t used to be able to vote, or women used to work less. Those are sort of revelations to them.

Your 2009 interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg was cited in the United States House of Representatives' Committee Report in support of the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2012 sex or race-based abortion. Some states are working on laws banning sex or raced-based abortion. Is that a thing that is happening very much?
My sense is, and I’m not hugely expert in this, is that this is something that happens to some degree in countries like India and China. And that there’s very little evidence that it’s happening here.

I think that sex selection laws are essentially symbolic because like you said, people are not going to give this reason. Even if they might feel it, they aren’t going to say it, right? And then when you look at the other laws about admission privileges, or there’s these one that are called “trap laws,” where the abortion clinic has to have the same specifications as an ambulatory surgical center. So that sentence is totally boring. But what that means in practice is that we’re going to shut down this clinic by making it so expensive to operate because we’re going to make it have all these “safety conditions” in place, but really it means it’s a lot of red tape and the clinic can’t operate any more. That’s what’s really going on.

What is going to be your next big project?
That’s a good question, do you have any ideas for me? I really am trying to figure that out, but I really don’t know the answer right now.

I think you should write Young Adult fiction!
You know it’s so funny, I wish that I could write Young Adult fiction novels--I have no reason to think I can do that well. There are a few different things I’m really interested in right now, but honestly I’m so depleted and I’m still talking about my book! So I think I need a couple months to get my bearings. But I’m really looking forward to having a new project!

How does it feel to be the 345th person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
It feels great! You ask such smart and interesting questions.

Follow me @Zulkey. To see previous interviews, go here.