Girls need anti-bullying outlook

How to make a mean girl: Begin with an adolescent girl, preferably young. Add one or more movie clips on ferocious female behavior (excerpts from “Mean Girls” or “Thirteen” work well). Blend until girl is saturated, then place in social setting with other girls and let sit. Bullying behaviors should appear quickly. Recently, behavior of adolescent girls has been the rage. Movies and TV shows equate teen with mean, and tweenish Bratz dolls glare from store shelves and magazine ads. The movie “Mean Girls” is currently a box-office hit. Girls now get the message that, in addition to academic and athletic accomplishments, they should be thin, sexy and violent.

Is this new, or have girls always used relational aggression (female bullying) to hurt each other? In my talks across the country, word wars are often dismissed because “girls will be girls” and adolescence is a phase to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Life has changed dramatically for young women in the past decade. The onset of puberty for girls is earlier than ever. Those who blossom early or later are easy targets for rivalry and aggressive behavior. Another new twist is the multitude of opportunities to aggress. Girls can use cell phones to deliver hateful text messages anywhere, any time. Computer chat rooms, instant messaging, e-mails and Xanga Web sites deliver devastating put-downs in a millisecond. A recent Girl Scout study confirmed that girls are nastier online than in real time.

When they're not in school or on phones or computers, girls are bombarded with TV shows that encourage competition over men, music that devalues women and movies that showcase teens at their worst. All these perpetuate a “mean girl” stereotype, and they are likely to increase because they mean big profits. Who cares about girls with integrity?

Don't get me wrong. Girls can act in mean ways. I've heard many young women speak about being betrayed, back-stabbed and blindsided by other girls. These behaviors wound, sometimes leading to depression, eating disorders and antisocial behavior. For high-risk girls, being excluded and tormented may tie into pregnancy, dropping out and crime. Even well-adjusted girls feel ill, have impaired concentration, or think about missing school because of relationship conflicts.

But suggesting mean behaviors are normal behaviors is simply wrong. Research shows that young women feel threatened and uncomfortable participating in or even watching bullying between peers.

Said Patrice, a sixth-grader in one of my programs as part of her adjudication: “I got a chance to be different. It showed me I don't have to bully other girls, and they will like me for who I am.” Patrice and girls like her are relieved to discover they don't have to be mean. My programs show significant improvements in girls' relational attitudes and behavior, which suggests that girls are both interested in and willing to change. The stakes are high. Female physical violence is often, if not always, preceded by verbal bullying. Mean girls can grow into mean women.

Recognizing these dangers, schools have implemented anti-bullying programs to eliminate physical hurts. Unfortunately, relational aggression often goes undetected. When they are aware of it, teachers and parents admit frustration over girl wars. No one should be a victim of hurtful behaviors, least of all adolescent girls, who are vulnerable to relationship issues.

My first suggestion, however, is an easy one. Turn off the television. Spend some time with your girl discussing behaviors that help rather than hurt. You might also disconnect the computer and stay out of the movie theaters while you're at it.

Cheryl A Dellasega, Associate professor of humanities at Pennsylvania State University
13 May 2004

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