On March 25, a British Columbia provincial court judge found a 16-year-old girl guilty of criminal harassment in connection with a classmate's suicide. The 14-year-old classmate who hanged herself left a suicide note that said the 16-year-old and several other girls bullied her before her death. The Canadian trial has brought renewed attention to the damage that abusive behavior among adolescents causes, and this time the spotlight is on teen-age girls.
Contrary to gender stereotypes, adolescent boys aren't the only ones prone to bullying. Aggressive behavior among girls is common, although it doesn't necessarily involve fistfights in the schoolyard. Gallup data corroborate a slew of new studies that examine the ways adolescent girls vent their aggression -- such as spreading gossip, sending libelous e-mails, and even betraying and abandoning long-time friends who no longer fit in with the popular crowd.
Finnish developmental psychologist Kaj Bjorkqvist pioneered this area of study, known as "relational aggression," nearly 15 years ago when he interviewed adolescent and pre-adolescent girls. Several new books, including Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut by Emily White and Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons, examine the causes and manifestations of aggression in girls.
Gallup surveys among teens aged 13 to 17 show that teen-age girls report that they either participate in, or fall victim to, physical and relational forms of aggression. The percentages of girls who report these behaviors and feelings are nearly as high, or in some cases higher, than those percentages of boys.
Taunting and "Dissing"
Rosalind Wiseman's new book, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, & Other Realities of Adolescence, is aimed at helping parents understand and daughters navigate what Wiseman calls "Girl World," which includes rumors, gossip and teasing that girls use to damage each other's reputations.
A national Gallup survey of teens conducted shortly after the Littleton, Colo., school shootings in 1999* showed that similar numbers of girls and boys observed their friends getting teased at school (57% and 54%, respectively). When asked if they, personally, are ever teased or ever tease others, boys were more likely than girls to say "yes" in each case -- but so did about one out of three girls. Thirty-two percent (32%) of girls said they get "teased, taunted, picked on or ‘dissed'" at school, while 36% said they did the same to others. The figures for boys were 57% and 49%, respectively.
A Gallup survey of teens conducted April through June 2000** found that though boys are more likely to engage in physical fights than girls are (26% versus 13%), girls who have fought were more likely than boys to cite relationship problems as a reason. Thirty-two percent (32%) of girls versus 13% of boys who reported being in a fight in the past year said that "an argument about a girlfriend or boyfriend" was a factor in why they were in a physical fight. A few other reasons for physical fighting among girls included having to stand up for oneself (97% among girls versus 85% among boys) and responding to something that someone said (88% among girls versus 74% among boys).
Bullying may not be as common among adolescent girls as it is among boys, but it is certainly present in middle schools and high schools everywhere. It is generally less overt and therefore trickier to address than the physical confrontations that boys are more likely to engage in. Programs such as Wiseman's Empower America are working to spread the word that adolescent social cruelty is a problem to be addressed with both genders.
*Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative national cross section of 500 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted September through November 1999. For this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5%.
**Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative national cross section of 500 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted April through June 2000. For this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5%.