Why School Bullying Is About to Disappear

Cody Pines is a hero, no doubt about it. When a high school bully physically assaulted his blind classmate last week, Pines was the only one of the surrounding people to actually leap forward and try to stop the fight. Admittedly his methods were somewhat harsh (he smashed the attacker to the ground with one punch), but it’s difficult not to cheer for him when watching the movie. It takes courage to act, when everybody else is just watching or making a Youtube movie.

That said, this incident is just a reminder of what’s going on in our school system. We usually don’t see what’s happening during the break, when all the pupils are playing outside the classroom. However, as I think anyone who’s ever been to a school can testify, there are plenty and plenty of fights, bullying, hair-pulling and other violent acts. And if you want to see the statistics, here are a few data points, straight from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Justice –

  • In 2011, an astounding number of 597,500 students aged 12 – 18 in the U.S. were victims of violence at school. In 2012, this number rose to 749,200
  • In 2011, 18% of students reported that there are gangs in their school.
  • In 2013, in a nationally representative survey of students in grades 9 – 12, more than eight percent reported that they were involved in a physical fight in school during last year. More than seven percent mentioned that they missed one day or more of school because they were afraid for their safety. And a whopping number of 19.6% reported being bullied in school.

Those numbers mean that students in school experience or witness fights almost constantly. That’s not surprising, of course: taking hormonally-charged teenagers, forcing them to interact with each other, and then making them stay together in the same class or school is a recipe for frustrations, anger and even violence. Basically, we’re expecting kids to play Survivor or Big Brother without resorting to violence, when even adults are known to lose their calm in such environments. What did you expect would happen?

In the headline of this article I claimed that school bullying is about to disappear, but now’s the time to admit that this forecast is only half-true. I sternly believe that physical bullying is about to go down radically in this decade and the next, while bullying of all the other sorts – such as virtual bullying and non-violent bullying in general will remain the same or even increase.

Here’s why: we’re going into a new world – the Monitored World.

The Monitored World

We are rapidly becoming surrounded by sensors. Nearly all of us, in fact, have at least five sensors in our pockets, in the shape of a smartphone. These sensors include a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a recorder, a GPS, and perhaps most importantly: a camera. Suddenly, we are all able to record whatever we see out there, and using Youtube we can share our findings with the entire world.

As of 2014, according to Pew Research Center, 64% of all American adults own a smartphone. While I have not been able to find similar statistics for youths, it seems likely that a large part of them own a smartphone as well, or will own a cheap (but functional!) one in the coming years, as prices keep going down.

In this sort of environment, any irregular activity will be immediately shared with the online audience, and will be judged accordingly. That is the public’s justice system: fully operated by the public, which is a judge, a jury and occasionally a hangman as well. Such a justice system, however, only takes note when the incident is truly extraordinarily cruel – as in the case of the blind child being beaten up. Only in such cases will the clip become viral, create a public uproar and force the authorities into action.

This is the state of things today. But how will sensors look like in five, ten or even fifteen years from now? They will be smaller, cheaper, and much more abundant. In fact, several large firms like Bosch, HP and Intel forecast that sometime between 2017 and 2022, we will have a trillion sensors in the world, which is about one hundred times the number of sensors we have today.

T Sensors forecast
The Trillion Sensors Vision. Image originally from Motherboard

What will those sensors look like? The short answer is that we won’t really notice them or think about them anymore, simply because they’ll be everywhere. They will be in our shoes and in our shirts. We’ll find them on our skins as electronic tattoos (of the kind that are being in development today) and on our eyes as the new versions of Google Glass. They’ll sit on our fingers as rings and measure our heart rate, our perspiration level and the activity we’re involved in right now. And where do you think all of the data being monitored by these devices will be sent to?

Let me answer this question with a short story about the future. Your son has just been physically bullied in school. His sensors immediately alerted you that he’s in pain and was involved in a fight, and you made a call to the school to let them know that. And as every angry dad should, you also let them know that if it happens again and they don’t break the fight early enough – you’re going to sue them for negligence. And if they do fight, you’ll know it immediately.

Now what do you think the school is going to do? Some schools will separate the two kids for good, which is hardly practical. Other schools will make the angry father understand that they can’t be responsible for everything that’s happening on their property – and then they should be willing to defend that position in court. And other schools – the ones in Silicon Valley, most probably – will take an altogether different approach and require the students to share their sensors data with the school system, to be monitored constantly by an artificial intelligence that will alert a teacher on the spot when young hearts start pumping too strongly.

These new school systems will monitor their students at all times. And why shouldn’t they? Most schools are treating the children as prisoners in any case: forced to sit for hours upon hours in one room, hearing content they don’t want to learn. When schools are required to safeguard the children from violence, do you really think they’ll care for their privacy?

Will all bullying disappear altogether? Obviously, it won’t. Some forms of bullying will become virtual, and happen in closed groups where the teachers won’t be able to discern it. Other forms of bullying – for example, when a group of popular kids excommunicate a certain student – will not be stopped so easily.

All the same, the Monitored World will largely bring an end to physical bullying… and along with it, will bring an end to kisses stolen in the dark, to young (and too young) lovers in the school’s basement, to the smoking of pot and many other unsanctioned acts. That is the meaning of the Monitored World: a world in which we must think carefully of the rules that we set to people and to students, because they will be enforced constantly.

Is that a good thing, or a bad one? The jury is still out on that, but at least we won’t have blind students being punched in the school halls.

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A School Is Engineering Children’s Brains with Electrical Current

Your child comes home from school, crying again. As you try to gently comfort him, he weeps openly on your shoulder – “The numbers won’t stop moving on the blackboard, and I couldn’t do my homework again and Tom said I was stupid!”

After a prolonged talk on the phone with Tom’s mother, you decide that something needs to be done. By now you know that your son has been diagnosed as suffering from dyscalculia: a difficulty in understanding numbers, which afflicts 3 – 6 percent of the population. But what can you do about it? If he had ADHD, you would’ve prescribed Ritalin for him, but there’s no easy and simple treatment you can give him to fix the problem. He’ll just have to work much harder than everyone else to understand math, because of the way his brain is shaped. That’s just the way nature works, right?

Well, we humans are particularly good at circumventing Mother Nature’s whims, and now there’s a new treatment for dyscalculia of a very different sort than anything else before it: basically, this treatment is all about re-engineering the brain of the child, from the inside.

The treatment, which goes by the scary name of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), relies on a helmet that generates magnetic fields inside the brain. Those magnetic fields, which can be focused on small areas in the brain, can enhance or inhibit the communication of the neurons in those areas. Essentially, we’re performing a brain surgery from within the skull, without lifting a finger or using an invasive tool of any sort. And the results are nothing less than astounding.

Despite the fact that TMS is a relatively young technology (the first successful study using TMS was conducted in 1985), it has already been approved by the FDA to treat depression and migraine. The only problem with TMS was that it requires a strong magnetic field, which can be generated (currently) only by a large and cumbersome equipment. In short, this means that TMS can only be used in the lab.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation.jpg
An illustration depicting the magnetic field being operated on a human brain.

But we did say that humans are good at circumventing problems, right? And so, meet TMS’ more nimble brother, the Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or TDCS. The idea here is to deliver a low electrical current to the area of the brain you want to influence. Scientific studies have shown that by focusing on specific areas of the brain we can enhance language skills, attention span, memory and – yes, you guessed it – mathematical ability. What’s more, the technology can be used with a pinpoint accuracy, and without having any serious side effects (at least as far as we know).

You’re waiting at the school for children with learning difficulties. Your son sits in front of you, serene and calm, with his eyes closed. After twenty minutes, the school’s nurse removes the electrodes from his forehead, and he opens his eyes again and smiles. She shows him the numbers on a blackboard, and this time he reads them all fluently.

 

This scenario is not science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s happening right now. In a recent research conducted by Roi Cohen-Kadosh from the University of Oxford, twelve children at the Fairley House school received nine training sessions with a variant of the TDCS technology. Six of them received the actual treatment, and the rest wore the cap and the electrodes, but did not receive any stimulation. As expected, the children who received the stimulation reached significantly better mathematical achievements than their friends.

A child using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. Is this the new form of learning? Image originally from a blog post in Scientific American, by Gary Stix.

The Age of Brain Engineering

There is still a debate whether or not TMS and TDCS can be used to enhance the brain’s function to more-than-human levels, or ‘just’ to negate quirks in the brain like dyscalculia and ADHD, and elevate the person to the normal level of the population. But what are those ‘normal’ levels? Is that an IQ of 100? Or maybe 120, or even 150? Approximately half of the population has an IQ lower than 100. How much would they benefit from a weekly treatment that would jumpstart their brains to the average level?

The debate about human enhancement, therefore, largely misses the full consequences of brain-engineering technologies like TMS and TDCS. Those technologies allow us to engineer the brain, and what’s more – they’re becoming cheap and easy enough to use, that anyone who really wants to can use them. There are already companies working on bringing the technology to the masses, like Foc.us – a company that sells transcranial stimulators that should enhance the brain’s functions for gamers. There’s even a Youtube vid that shows you how to make a TDCS of your own for about 20 dollars (careful, I’m not endorsing that!)

Cohen-Kadosh himself is already envisioning a future in which people “…plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano.” And while we are obviously not quite there yet, there is no reason we couldn’t get to that point within ten years. After all, Facebook changed the entire way people communicate in just ten years. Why not brain technologies, particularly when they are of the non-invasive sort?

Admittedly, these commercial technologies are still in their diapers right now, and are probably more razzle dazzle than real substance. However, as the technologies mature, we will gain the ultimate power over our brains, and will reach a time of Cosmetic Neurology – when we’ll be able to alter our moods, our abilities and our perceptions according to our wishes. This development might happen in ten or twenty or even thirty years from now, but when it comes, you, me and everyone else will need to answe the question: will we re-engineer our brains?

You’re back at the house. The kid is happily solving mathematical equations in his notebook, while simultaneously watching TV and chatting with his friends on Facebook. You, in the meantime, are still struggling with that new coding language the boss asked you to study this week. You’re tired and miserable from exerting your brain so much. You take a glance at the kid’s TDCS kit, which the school supplied you with, and for a moment… you wonder.