National Post

April 13, 2002

Ridicule replaces violence

Ostracism and meanness are the weapons employed by young girls, researchers say

Sarah Schmidt
National Post

Jeff Vinnick, National Post
Cindy Wesley's 14-year-old daughter, Dawn-Marie, committed suicide after being taunted and verbally abused by a group of girls. One of Dawn-Marie's schoolmates was convicted of criminal harassment.

It hardly seems like an act of aggression -- a group of girls walks by another girl in the hallway without uttering a word, or one might toss out an insult like fatso or loser, maybe even slut. But it seems petty to complain about mere words, or silence.

Yet, according to several new books, this kind of treatment is exactly how a growing number of teenage girls act out a behaviour often thought to be primarily the domain of boys: bullying.

The issue of girl bullies arose in dramatic fashion this week after a 14-year-old Halifax boy shot himself in his bedroom, apparently after being threatened and extorted by a gang led by a teenage girl.

Last month, a British Columbia girl was convicted of criminal harassment after her schoolmate, Dawn-Marie Wesley, 14, hanged herself to end verbal torments by a group of girls.

In 1997, Reena Virk, 14, was swarmed twice near her Victoria home by a gang of teens, all but one of them girls. The first beating was revenge for a dispute, for which six teenage girls were convicted of assault causing bodily harm; Reena was killed in a second attack involving a young woman and man.

Based on nastiness instead of brute force, meanness over physical prowess, female bullying is all about exclusion and ridicule.

New research in Canada shows that girl bullies rarely rely on physical violence. Their torment is carried out in groups, often against just one girl.

"For girls, it's about bringing in an entire group to bully someone, just totally isolating someone from a mainstream peer group," said Wendy Craig, a psychologist at Queen's University who is part of a bullying research project with York University. "The highly aggressive ones will be physical, but most do verbal manipulations. Physical bullying is quite rare."

Dr. Craig said preliminary data show girls bully as often as boys, but do not identify their behaviour as bullying because it is psychological and emotional, not physical.

The Canadian research is part of a growing field that challenges the longstanding view that bullying is primarily a male behaviour. A flurry of books, released this spring, capture the meanness of the girl bully, who torments her victims in cunning and sophisticated ways. They include Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence, Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and Emily White's Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut.

"Girls are more invested in the taunting. The girls were the worst, while boys didn't seem so worked up about it. The girls really make a decision to ostracize her and bring her down," Ms. White said in an interview.

Dr. Peter Jaffe, founding director of the Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System, based in London, Ont., says educators and parents are only beginning to recognize the problem.

"Traditionally, we've focused on the physical aggression, and obviously boys always came to people's attention instead of girls," said Dr. Jaffe, a psychologist and expert on bullying.

Boys, for example, are four times more likely to end up in youth court on an assault charge than girls are. But this hardly shows a full picture of bullying, Dr. Jaffe said.

"When we looked at bullying five years ago, we tended to focus on this as a physical issue. We worried about whether kids have weapons, whether boys were harming each other. The new reality is that bullying takes many forms and it includes emotional and psychological abuse, humiliating, degrading comments and coercive behaviour."

Enter the girl bully. Girls form much closer bonds with each other than boys. Unlike boys, they are also taught to suppress physical aggression.

Their advanced verbal skills and mature social intelligence help girls devise sophisticated ways to ostracize a weak link in any peer group, Dr. Jaffe said. "With girls, it's about being included and sharing secrets and being part of social networks. If you're not included, it can be the start of a very negative cycle in a girl's self-esteem."

The psychological scars can be far more traumatic than a fist in the face, Dr. Jaffe said. "Those leave scars that are invisible, but are equally harmful."

Canadian researchers are building on the pioneering work of Kaj Bjorkqvist, a Finnish professor who, in the early 1990s, focussed on relationships of pre-teen girls. She founded that girls were as aggressive as boys, but exhibited it in non-physical ways.

A group of educators and community groups are holding a symposium on bullying next month in Ottawa. They will wrestle with the phenomenon of the girl bully.

"I think we're still at the level of trying to name the problem," Dr. Jaffe said.

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