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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Mean Girl Dilemma

By Peter DeWitt — January 16, 2013 6 min read
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“As the issue of girl bullying has risen to new prominence, it has attracted a more troubling kind of attention. Reality television show producers discovered that mean girls sell, and they churned out scores of programs featuring breathtakingly aggressive females.” Rachel Simmons

Stephanie is a “mean girl.” She says she’s “just kidding” as she rolls her eyes when adults, including her parents, call her on her behavior. It started in third grade when she tried to get girls to join her club. In the club, Stephanie wanted to talk about other girls. This is human nature, right? One by one the girls in the club realized they had better things to do because they didn’t like the language Stephanie used and definitely didn’t like what she was saying about other girls.

In fourth grade Stephanie began experimenting with Facebook. She wrote abusive language on another girl’s Facebook page which wasn’t a good idea because her face and name appeared next to the words. Parents began doing screen shots to document the behavior. Even worse, Stephanie began “Friending” people she didn’t know. She wanted more “friends” and talked back and forth with kids that she only knew through social networking.

How does she know they are kids?

In fifth grade, Stephanie stepped it up a bit. She posed in a provocative photo. With her hands up against the wall, showing her back with her face turned around covered in professionally done make-up, Stephanie used the new photo as her Facebook profile picture. In addition to Facebook, Stephanie began creating fake accounts for other students grabbing pictures from Flicker.

School always disciplined her when it became a school issue. Her parents were responsive and they took away her phone, iPad and iPod each time. She apologized to classmates and said she didn’t know why it was “a big deal.” Her parents grounded her and close friends for that year stopped hanging out with her. Mostly, because their parents noticed changes in their own children and didn’t want their daughters under Stephanie’s influence.

Stephanie always found a new friend to hang out with each year but her behavior was always the same. There was always a new girl who wanted to be “cool” with Stephanie. They were confronted with how “uncool” things were after being disciplined for being mean to other peers. More parents followed suit with parents who came before them and forbid their children to hang out with Stephanie.

The school did everything from detention to counseling. They even brought in the state police internet crimes unit to talk with students about internet safety, which is something the teachers always focused on as well. But there was always one problem. Stephanie didn’t get it, and unfortunately, she’s not alone. Many girls participate in relational aggression.

Relational Aggression Among Girls
Relational aggression (RA) is a term to describe behaviors that are used to harm someone by damaging or manipulating their peer relationships. The Colorado Foundation for Families and Children describe it as “The use of relationships to harm another person; for example starting rumors, spreading gossip,teasing, creating or joining cliques, and deliberately excluding another person.”

Relational aggression among girls has always been around but it has seen an increase in visibility due to high profile bullying cases. Young girls can turn to positive role models by looking to their parents (if they set a good example), teachers, peers and a few celebrities. Unfortunately, the media is filled with bad role models, and even worse, these negative role models send mixed messages to our children.

They make lots of money.
• These role models are on television, celebrity magazines and in the newspapers in the grocery store checkout line.

In a Today Show interview, Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out says,”

As the issue of girl bullying has risen to new prominence, it has attracted a more troubling kind of attention. Reality television show producers discovered that mean girls sell, and they churned out scores of programs featuring breathtakingly aggressive females.

These programs rewarded their stars with book deals, product lines, and other spoils of celebrity--and gained a rapt teen following. The scramble to commodify the mean girl trickled down to even the youngest consumers: children’s television programming began to highlight an array of snarky, sarcastic girl characters. As a result, girls now observe ten times the amount of relational aggression on television that they see in real life. In an analysis of television programs, researchers found that the meanest female characters on television were frequently rewarded for their behavior


Besides the media explosion of mean girl behavior, the internet has helped promote the behavior as well. Young kids are tech savvy and they know how to take photos and create accounts for unsuspecting classmates. In the old days a mean girl might write a note to another girl as a trick and sign a boys name as a “joke” but these days kids have access to pictures and the note can spread like wildfire.

Simmons says, “Technology has also altered girls’ everyday relationships, indeed girls’ very sense of self. It is not uncommon for a girl to say, “I don’t exist if I’m not on Facebook.” Many girls sleep with their cell phones on their chests, waiting for them to vibrate with news in the night. They treat their cell phones like extensions of their bodies and are inconsolable if they lose access. In 2010, the average teen texted three thousand times per month.”

Why Does This Happen?
Some girls think this is 21st century joking around and they get mixed messages from the media and the adults around them. Adults say “Don’t act like a mean girl” and then watch some real housewife on reality television. Kids can’t always process the act of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Other girls are growing up with mean girl role models right in their own home. They act like the adults or older siblings around them act.

Some mean girls have low self-esteem and this is how they can make themselves feel better. The behavior of pulling in peers and getting girls to be mean to others provides them with a level of control. It also provides them with the opportunity to keep the focus off the reasons why they have low self-esteem in the first place.

Sadly, it’s a process to get some girls to understand they don’t have to be mean to one another. This absolutely happens with boys as well (another blog for that one!). There are girls who want to knock down other girls. They don’t recognize (or ignore to recognize) how negatively this will affect them in life and only see short term benefits.

We need to teach girls to advocate for themselves and that does not include being mean or using bullying behavior toward other peers. There are so many positive, self-fulfilling, and service oriented activities that girls could be doing and mean girl behavior isn’t one of them.

Girls need to learn:
• Coping skills to deal with issues properly so they don’t participate in negative behaviors. This will also help them work cooperatively with others in school, college and the workplace.

• Self-esteem building has to be a goal for parents and schools. Yes, some of these girls who participate in mean girl behavior have great self-esteem but their victims need the self-esteem building so they can move past on.

• Monitor social networking. I know this is obvious but it isn’t to everyone. Social networking offers us great opportunities but it’s fast and furious and parents need to keep up with it. Set boundaries. See the 18 Point Rule.

• Understand it’s a problem. If your daughter is participating in this type of behavior she is in the wrong. Mean girl behavior is not something to ignore and at some point the school will come calling and you shouldn’t be surprised.

• Code Word - If adolescents are going to use social networking, perhaps they should make sure they have a code word with a friend to make sure it’s really them...just as long as they can trust the friend.

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For an interesting video about the influence of media on childhhood take a moment to watch this video by the Marin Waldorf School.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.