Author Emily Bazelon on kids and social media

Mar 08, 2013

Attention readers: This chat was originally scheduled for March 7 but was postponed until 1:30 p.m. March 8. We're sorry for the inconvenience. Emily Bazelon, author of "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy," took questions about bullying and kids' use of social media.

Hi, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. Emily is here and we have lots of great questions waiting for her, so let's get started.

Has social media made bullying: (1) easier; (2) replaced and/or added to the volume of pre-social media bullying: and (3) is now more culturally acceptable (versus physical contact) among adolescents and teens? Related, do you think bullying might be hard-wired (or at least the potential for bullying) versus "character and empathy" that must be learned?

Social media has made bullying feel more prevalent to kids. Instead of going home after school and getting a break, they get drawn in to following threads about themselves online. It's also changed bullying for kids who do it--without face to face feedback, kids may be harsher and meaner online than they are in person.

I don't think bullying is hard wired. With the rare exception of the sociopath, someonewho cannot feel empathy or remorse, both kids who bully grow out of it. And even adults who bully can and do stop.

In your opinion, what can schools do to prevent the usage of social media during school hours? We can't prevent students from creating these profiles, but we know where most students will be from about 8-4 Monday through Friday.

Schools can and do block sites like Facebook and Instagram and Formspring and Twitter inside school. Some also forbid cell phones. I'm all for taking a break from social media during school (though I also wonder if the cell phone ban is just unenforceable). I also don't think that social media use in school is the big issue. It's how kids use the Internet outside of school that is.

The Federal government gives state government funds to administer to schools for bulling programs. What would you most recommend such funds be used for?

Prevention! There's no one size fits all or magic bullet solution. But there are several frameworks and programs that can work at different kinds of schools. More specifics here (scroll to page 5) 

My nine year old daughter is on Instagram, I thought this was a ridiculous idea, but it turns out, most of her friends and classmates are on as well. It's completely open to us and she knows it, handing it over to us whenever we ask. And obviously, all the controls are in place so that no one besides her friends are seeing the pictures. There's not much danger in that all the pictures are of our pets and funny things she sees on commercials. When I look through her feed everyday I can't believe how many pictures these little girls post of themselves, all of them with these common themes - duckface, suprise/shock (hand over mouth) or fake sleeping. I don't know why I find this so, well, disturbing, but I do. I've talked with my daughter and she agrees that it's a little odd how many of her friends do this, but she certainly sees nothing wrong with it. She's put a few of her self on there, one she zombified her face and a few other photo manipulations, like sunglasses or a mustache. I think it's the focus these little girls put on their face and being pretty/cute/clever in the picture that I find upsetting. Do you have any thoughts?

First off, good for you for scrolling through her feed every day. I have to say, though, that I also find this troubling, and here's why. The site is habituating your daughter and her friends to giving up their own privacy. The kind of widespread sharing they're doing is exactly how Instagram and Facebook--which owns Instagram--make money. FB's business model is based on users sharing as much information as possible. Your daughter's photos sound totally innocent, but is it a good idea for her to grow up thinking that every moment is fodder for photos broadcast over a network? just asking.

which social networks are most popular among youth? how does behavior on these social networks mimic or contrast with relationships offline?

Facebook has the most American kids: 20 million teens as of last year, plus 7.5 million kids under 13, even though legally speaking they're not supposed to be there. Instragram is gaining in popularity. There's a site called Formspring that caused a lot of trouble for some of the kids in my book: It's set up to let kids send messages out widely while being anonymous. And then there's Twitter, which has only about a 16 percent share about teens, last time I looked, but that is double what it had a couple of years ago.

I'm sure you get this a lot, but I was one of those mothers who tried to teach her son not to hit. But I have to admit, one day when he hauled off and hit the bully who had been physically and verbally making his life miserable (poking him, taking his shoes or hat, moving his book bag around, all while taunting him for about a year) the boy stopped bothering him, and he never had trouble with any other children joining in (which had also been a problem.) And believe me, the authorities at the school were well aware of the problem, the teachers were in on it, and everyone was doing what they could to keep this from happening, not only to my child, but in general. (I have nothing but praise for what adults tried to do, even though they couldn't watch every moment of every day.) Still, it was worth three days suspension. And when I talk to other parents, I can't help but escape the feeling that sometimes, this really does work. What do you think?

You're right, I do hear this a lot, and when it works, my feeling is, GOOD. I know schools have to have zero-tolerance policies about violence, but I don't! The problem, though, is that most victims don't pull this off as well as your son. They're smaller and weaker than the kids bullying them, so striking back physically backfires. Or they lash out and lose control and that's not good either. So I think this REALLY depends on the kid. I completely understand why you thought this suspension was worth it, but I also wouldn't want parents whose kids have trouble standing up for themseles physically to exhort their children to do something that's just not right for who they are. Most of the time, bullying shouldn't be on the victim to solve.

could you comment on how parents and schools can effectively protect kids who are being bullied on -- the anonymous Q & A app that has become popular?

Right, that's another site, like Formspring, with a lot of anonymity. My main advice is GET OFF THE SITE. If an environment is toxic, then walk away from it. you can also file an abuse report to sites like these, but in my experience that often doesn't work, and it's not getting at the root of the problem, either. To do that, you usually have to trace what's happening online back to real life and sort out the problem there.

Hi Emily - love you on Slate's Political Gabfest!!! Question about your book...I'm interested in reading it as I have a four year old son going to Kindergarten next year. I know he's too young for bullying but at what age do I, as his mom, need to start paying attention to this both to protect him from bullies and to make sure he doesn't fall into the role of a bully? Also, are there tips in the book that would make it beneficial to read now?

Thank you--we love our Gabfest listeners! Bullying starts to be an issue around third grade. But yes you should read my book now, because it's so important to instill empathy and resilience in kids at a young age. And yes there are definitely tips and resources that you can use now! As well as later.

The New York Times review of your book applauds you for being nonjudgmental in a generous way. How were you able to separate your emotions considering how sensitive the topic is?

Wow, that's such a nice question to get. You know, I think I drank the empathy Kool-Aid. Which is to say that as I was writing and reporting, I became more and more convinced that empathy is incredibly crucial to human relationships. So much good comes from it--and harm comes when it's lacking. I really tried to embrace that in my work. And also, I just enjoy teenagers and find talking to them fascinating. So in some ways they made it easy for me!

your comments about instagram are spot on. i find myself battling the "my friends are doing it" argument constantly. obviously if my kids' friends jumped off a bridge, i wouldn't let my kids go after them. but considering the world has become sooo socially digital, how do we safely prepare our kids without holding them back?

I talk a lot about this in my book. Quickly here: Go step by step. When you're 4th grader tells you that everyone has an iPhone, that's not true, and even if it is, who cares? The question is: Is she ready to handle it? With my own kids, our strategy has been delay and then setting limits. So my older son got a phone when he started a new school last fall for 7th grade, but we got him a dumb phone--no internet and no camera. And at night it charges downstairs while he sleeps upstairs. Because if he got an upsetting text in the middle of the night, what exactly would he do? And besides, he should be sleeping.

Original Poster here. I lost a battle on whether a 9 year old needs an iPod touch and have lost battles since about what she should be using it for (I'll save it for another chat - HAX). I don't think she should use it at all, mainly because it's so frivolous. And yes, I agree with you, why does this need to be shared. I have asked my daughter why she thinks these things are worth posting and sharing with her friends, and also, why she thinks her friends pictures are important enough to be viewed by her and others? But it always comes out as more of a joke or teasing her. Any tips on how to make this a better conversation about exactly what you're saying? Or do I get to use this post as the reason to take it all away?

It's always easier to start off strict and then become less so. Taking it away might cause more trouble than it's worth at this point. But how about talking to her about limits and why she might want to take it easy on the photos? Not to keep bringing up my book, but I actually think it's a good jumping off point for conversations with kids about exactly these sorts of issues. That's what I wrote it for!

Do you believe in unplugging totally from devices during the weekend or having family black out times or days?

I really love this idea, though I confess we have not pulled it off in our house for a whole weekend. But we do it during dinner and then after 8:30 or 9 pm, til the kids go to sleep. I do think it can be a great way to focus the family in the here and now.

So which platform is safest for kids under 13?

Safest is no social media at all for little kids. But if you're going to do it, I hear OK things about Club Penguin.

What do parents tell their kids to help them keep social media in perspective? I worry about it becoming all-consuming, and taking the place of face-to-face interactions.

yes, me too. You can talk about how it's face to face interactions that are associated with healthy emotional relationships for kids. A Stanford study found that young girls who spend many hours on social media tended to feel worse about their friends than kids who didn't. And you can also talk about how learning empathy is about looking ppl in the eye so you can see how they're feeling. And remember, parents CAN set limits. Right?

It seems sad that we have to rediscover character and empathy, but it's so true. How did our culture get to the point where those things are not priorities anymore?

I really like this question from a Havard psychologist, Rick Weissbourd: Do we, as parents, send a message to our children that we value their individual achievement and happiness more than their moral development and sense of the collective good? Here is my version of that question: Am I just as pleased, and offering of praise, when my sons come home and tell me they did something kind, or stood up for someone weaker, as I am when they bring home an excellent report card?

What kinds of things should parents teach their children to help them "play nicely" with their friends online?

To tell your kid about posting online: Think about the impact what you're writing could have in the same way that you would if the other person is standing in front of you. And also, remember that online interactions are harder to interpret bec there's no tone of voice and no physical cues. So you should actually be MORE careful, and more gentle, than you would be if you were talking.

You say no social media at all for little kids. How old should they be?

You know, when I ask high school students this, they often say they wish they'd held off on social media til after middle school. I've heard them give this advice to middle school students. It makes sense to me, since by HS, kids are more mature, and there's often a broader definition of popularity, a sense that different kinds of skills and atttributes have value. That said, I dont' think we can really roll back the clock here. So I'll end with this stat: about 42 percent of kids 12 and under are on FB, while more than 80 percent of 13 and 14 year olds are. I'd like to see the first stat go down, not up.

What role could school administrators take on social media bullying? What are their responsibilities when they are aware of bullying instances outside the school building yet they affect one or more of their students?

This is a tough one. It's a big task to investigate cyberbullying, and I'm not sure it's fair to ask schools to take all of this on. The problem, of course, is who else should--going to the police is often too heavy handed, I think. So here's' my rule of thumb: Schools should help families who come to them about online conflicts by bringing in the ppl involved to talk. And they should especially help kids when something happens online that poses a risk to a student's safety. But they shouldn't discipline for it unless the bullying causes a substantial disruption in school. That's the Supreme Court's general standard for punishing students for speech. I'm not sure it's the right fit for off-campus speech online, but for now, it's what we've got.

I try to teach my kids not to tattle, and so do the teachers. But is bullying an exception to that? And where is the line between teasing and bullying?

I know. There are different kinds of bullies. One kind is the proverbial Mean Girl (sometimes a boy!) who uses meanness to score social points--to become more popular. Another kind is sadder: some kids are both bullies and victims. They tend to have a lot of trouble making friends, and when they lash out, while it's hard to deal with, it's really a cry for help.

Less about social media, more about bullying in general: How can a parent of a young child (5-6) stop bullying before it starts without being all helicoptery about it? As a mom of a young son, I want to jump in when he's having issues with his friends, but feel like I need to let them figure it out. He's already coming home in tears when a friend taunts him for something as seemingly silly as not liking Star Wars.

When your kid is in tears of course you should comfort him. But before you do more--ie, intercede on his behalf--try to figure out if this is a pattern, and if he's really being made miserable. because you're right, it's so important for kids to figure out how to handle conflict and overcome adversity. If you do think your kid is being bullied, ask him to help come up with strategies for dealing with it. The key to resilience is knowing that you can work something out on your own--believing in yourself to come through a bad situation. If your kid helps solve his own problem, you've made him better off while also increasing his capacity for resilience and his sense of his own competency!

Why is that when bullying really gets going? I've seen hints of it even with my kindergartner and it just breaks my heart.

Third grade is when researchers see a jump. bullying can happen before that, but it's not common. At a younger age, kids are aggressive but they don't usually go after one kid deliberately and repreatedly.

hey thanks everyone for the great questions! Shameless self-promotion: You can order my new book here.

In This Chat
Emily Bazelon
Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. Before joining Slate, she worked as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. She is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, and lives in New Haven with her husband and two sons. Sticks and Stones is her first book.
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