Mean Girls Bully Just as Badly

Whether in the form of kicks or cliques, bullying is still bullying

Seconds into the raw footage of a group of teenage boys beating 13-year-old Nadin Khoury, it’s clear the bullies mean business. Between kicking Nadin and hanging him from a fence by his jacket, the boys were out for blood.

In late 2009 and early last year, calculated and racially fueled violent bullying of Asian students at South Philly High grabbed national headlines.

Bullying is no longer just the stuff of pulled pigtails and innocent teasing; it’s become dangerous, even life-threatening, for adolescent boys and girls alike.

Earlier this week, seven bullies who beat on Nadin were arrested for perpetrating the violence. Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood called the band a “wolf pack” and vowed to handle bullying and threats among kids seriously — with handcuffs.

But what about the bullying that happens behind the scenes? “Relational aggression,” as experts call it, happens more often among girls than boys. How is this kind of bullying to be addressed when it isn’t manifest via obvious acts of physical violence?

The covert bullying that girls tend to engage in can be just as damaging as physical bullying. This is painfully illustrated in the case of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts teen who committed suicide last year after enduring months of verbal bullying in school and via text message.

Her peers’ verbal affronts and relentless taunts pushed Phoebe over the edge to a tragic end, so why is it that we only seem to notice bullying before it reaches the tragic end of an adolescent’s life when it’s physical in nature? Whether it’s “girls being girls” through gossip and peer exclusion or “boys being boys” through physical violence, bullying is bullying. Phoebe’s case proves this. It seems as though the media — and sadly, in her case, law enforcement — are slower to react to mean girls than to mean boys, though both have equal propensity for inducing tragedy.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, Temple professor and author of “You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25,” contends that because young girls are less likely than their male counterparts to resort to violence in bullying, their issues oftentimes go unnoticed among parents and teachers.

“Girls use social-aggression or relational-aggression tactics like gossiping or excluding people as a way of elevating their own status at another person’s expense,” Steinberg says. “Boys do some of that, too, of course, but it certainly is a more common way for girls to express aggression.”

This so-called “mean-girl behavior” can start as young as kindergarten, one psychologist – and a handful of mothers — told the New York Times in October. Cases like Phoebe’s illustrate what catastrophic endings it can have.

Steinberg says relational aggression is linked to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. “The same way that physical bullying makes a lot of kids afraid to come to school, relational or social aggression can also make kids scared to go to school,” he says. “They don’t want to be teased or made fun of or excluded.”

Arresting boys who perpetrate violence among their peers is a step in the right direction. But we hear of it so much more often than about what’s being done to keep young girls from meeting fates like Phoebe’s until it’s too late. Parents, teachers and law enforcement shouldn’t forget that bullying isn’t always as obvious as a group of boys literally kicking a kid while he’s down.