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A Girl Thing: Relational Bullying in a Digital Age

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Let’s face it. The anti-bullying campaigns in schools don’t always translate into real life. In fact, I hear middle and high school kids say that they are sick of all the bullying awareness assemblies or initiatives. Like, they get it already.

Do they?

Recently, on a rare family dinner night out, I overheard my daughters (13 & 16) in the back of the car. They were both catching up on Instagrams.

The Elder: “Why did she post that? That’s so mean.”

The Younger: “I know.”

The Elder:  “She shouldn’t do that.”

Being the nosey mom that I am, I try to eek out what the exchange was between the two girls they were referring to. So I intrude and ask, What’s going on? One girl was posting to the other girl that she was no longer her friend — for reasons that seemed elusive and yet was broadcast to the slew of tweens among their networks.

The Younger: “Mom, it’s nothing.”

It IS something, I go on to say. Actually, I go into the psych-education mode that can drive my daughters crazy, but that comes with the territory of having a mom-psychologist. I proceed:

“Girls do this thing called ‘relational bullying.’ It’s not the obvious kind that might be witnessed by other kids in school, like name calling, tripping, or excluding a girl from the lunch table. It’s about girls pitted against each other and it’s being played out right now in your Instagram network. And what’s more is that these girls’ mothers are also friends, who watched their girls grow up and play sports together. They likely have no idea what is transpiring right now and there’s an opportunity – for you, anyone in the group, even a mom, to change what’s happening.”


The Younger: “Mommm….. “

Over 10 years ago, leadership expert Rachel Simmons wrote a book called “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.”  She interviewed many girls across a variety of demographics and areas of the US. She also interviewed parents and teachers. Some of the stories were heartbreaking: girls becoming depressed, losing any sense of self-esteem, or moving to another school as the only viable solution. At the time of publication, the book was a wake up call for parents and educators on how girl bullying manifests in unique ways. Unlike the schoolyard fights among boys, or passing mean notes in class, much of girls’ aggression is subtle and less obvious to others. Girls engage by speaking in their own “code language”  and they leverage their connections for power. It’s a girl code that obscures the struggles many of them experience: jealousy, competition, fears of being left out, feeling alone, hating their bodies, being seen as uncool, and fear of being shamed.

There’s a cautionary line in Simmon’s book about parents when they discover their daughter is a target:

“Parents seeking justice for their daughters face cultural and personal obstacles. Most daunting is the fact that alternative aggressions are ignored or rarely considered a legitimate social problem. More often school officials downplay the problem or blame the victim. Many parents described daughters being sent to psychological counseling for treatment when there was nothing wrong with them, encouraged to get costly social skills training when it was the perpetrator who in fact needed the help, or ignored because the perpetrator was stealthy and it came to a case of she-said, she-said. Most surprisingly, plenty of parents opt for silence.” (Odd Girl Out, page 205, Harcourt, 2002 paperback edition)

Fast forward to 2013 and now we have the Internet and social networks. The culture is more hidden than ever. There’s a whole new way for girls to vie for power in the social hierarchy. Not only can a female bully enlist others, there is now room for many, many bystanders – like my daughters who observed the digital exchange on Instagram. With hundreds of followers on teens’ social networks, the sheer volume of potential witnesses to posts of overt exclusion and bullying is exasperating. One could have hundreds of friends and yet all could remain silent. Talk about lonely. It happens among boys, too.

At the same time, it would be heartening (if not radical) if just one of those followers interrupted the cycle. Took the higher road. Stood up and stood out. Who might be brave enough to “direct message” or text or call the girl exerting malicious power? “Hey, that’s not nice. Friends support friends. If you have something to talk over, do it in person.”  Or reach out to the slighted girl. “It’s okay, I’ll always be your friend.” That’s a show of a decent friend and of emerging leadership. (In fact, the latter is what The Younger did almost immediately before my speech. It’s the easier choice if you think about it. But I’m glad she offered the kindness none the less.)

There are other ways to show resistance, too. I recall a local story, just about a year ago, of a high school girl named Masie Miller. Some “popular” girls taunted her at school for having her hair in pigtails. She was an athlete and this was one method for keeping her hair out of her eyes. Apparently, Masie had been teased before (she did not share this with her parents). This time was the last straw. In a bold stand of resistance she created a Facebook page, Pigtails 4 Peace.  Within days, other kids, teachers, and even a teacher’s dog were donning pigtails. The bullying stopped.

It’s worth sharing these stories with our children. Kids need examples. Leadership and resistance is what’s needed and it doesn’t take much… just a dose of courage, kindness, and an understanding that we are all connected.

Some audacious teens started an initiative called The Great American No Bull Challenge to encourage kindness by creating videos. The challenge was inspired after several teen suicides were thought to be related to cyberbullying. Guess what we did after dinner tonight?  We watched the 2013 finalist’s videos together, just because I really really want my girls to get it that they have a voice in the face of digital drama. The more timely such messages are to a relevant situation in their lives, the better. “These videos are good,” they observed. Yes, indeed. So what if one kid did something different?

What if?



Worth checking out (from the org’s website):

The Great American NO BULL Challenge is a social action organization that offers youth the opportunity to promote digital responsibility, leadership and social change using creativity, the power of peer-to-peer education and the magic of filmmaking. NO BULL’s Teen Video Awards celebrates and promotes all those involved who brave the Challenge and stand up for change for the most important issues of our time. – See more

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