For over 50 years, researchers have been studying how boys and girls interact. Not surprisingly, they have found some differences. For the most part, boys and girls are more similar than they are different. A lot of girls enjoy playing computer games, and a lot of boys enjoy more friendship-centered activities. Researchers have found, however, that as a general group, boys spend more time with boys in physical activities such as sports and games; whereas girls tend to spend more of their time socializing with other girls in more friendship-based activities (for example, talking with other girls) (1, 2, 3). So it is not surprising that boys and girls tend to bully and be bullied differently. One of the most consistent research findings is that boys are more likely to both bully and be bullied than are girls (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). Also, boys and girls experience different types of bullying behaviors.
Bullying is defined as a form of aggression that is repetitively exerted against an individual who feels unable to defend him/herself (10). This aggression may occur directly against someone in a physical (for example, slapping, pushing) or verbal (for example, swearing, name calling) manner. Bullying can also be indirect whereby the targeted person experiences the aggression through others (for example, gossiped about, excluded from a social activity).
How are Girls Involved in Bullying?
Through Peer Group
Girls tend to bully other girls indirectly through the peer group. Rather than bully a targeted child directly, girls more often share with other girls (and boys) hurtful information about the targeted child (4). For example, a girl may tell a group of girls an embarrassing story about another girl. They may create mean names, gossip, and come up with ways of letting the girl know that she is rejected from the peer group (for example, saying mean things about her on social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, using her email address to send harassing messages to everyone on her email list, texting her a death threat). These are called “relational” bullying because they attack relationships and friendships.
Another example of bullying experienced more often by girls than boys is sexual (for example, touched in private body parts or received sexual messages) (4, 11). Sexual types of bullying may occur at school, in the general community, and on-line. In recent Canadian and U.S. surveys, a significant number of girls report receiving unwanted sexual messages. Fewer boys reported being targeted in this way. This form of bullying combined with messages about rejection from friendships can be devastating to a girl’s sense of enthusiasm for school and learning, self-esteem, and hopes for the future. These forms of bullying can be particularly time-consuming and difficult to resolve given that they involve many people over a period of time and are most often done covertly. It may even involve adults who react aggressively in defence of their children. In addition, parents and school authorities do not always detect gossiping or other covert bullying behaviors because they are generally hidden from adults (12, 13). Thus, they may not be disciplined and “caught”, which may increase the severity and duration of these behaviours. It may even occur among “friends”, making it seem that it’s just typical peer conflict. However, when one girl feels powerless in how she is being treated, then bullying is occurring, and adults need to intervene.
How are Boys Involved in Bullying?
In contrast to girls, boys of any age and ethnic group tend to be physically aggressive (e.g., hit, kick, slap, push, or punch) (1, 2, 9, 11, 14, 20). Also, research shows that physical abuse tends to occur more often among boys than girls at all educational levels (e.g., elementary, high school, college) (13, 15, 16). In addition, male college students tend to bully and be bullied through physical and verbal forms of bullying (e.g., name-calling) more often than college girls (15).
Also boys may be more accepting of bullying, than are girls (17). That is, boys may like a girl even if she bullies others and like other boys who bully. Girls may still befriend boys who bully, but tend to dislike girls who bully. At the core of these differences are children’s and, indeed, societal beliefs about acceptable behaviors for boys and girls. Many people may see bullying among boys as “just boys being boys”. So, girls may accept this attitude and tolerate boys’ bullying. However, girls may be less accepting of girls who bully if it is seen as overly aggressive.
Effects of Bullying: Signs That A Child Is Being Bullied
All types of bullying may have a tremendous impact on targeted children. They may feel depressed, anxious, eat or sleep less or more, have difficulty concentrating on school work, have trouble making friends with others, lie, steal, run away from home, avoid school or even consider suicide (1, 3, 13, 18). Children may not want to tell anyone if they feel they deserve this type of treatment, caused it, or that telling would make it worse (which the bully may have threatened). There may also be long-term effects of bullying on bullies themselves (13). Some children who bully at a young age may continue to use aggression and control in other relationships as they grow older (13). For example, boys may start dating earlier than other boys and be aggressive in these relationships. Also, as adults they may be aggressive towards colleagues, use aggression with their own children, and engage in criminal acts including sexual assault. Girls involved in significant bullying in the early grade school years may experience depression over a long term, attempt suicide, or develop an eating disorder (19).
Again, individual men and women, and boys and girls experience bullying in unique ways. Research has documented some of the differences mentioned in this article. It is important to keep in mind, however, that boys may also experience indirect forms of bullying, and girls may experience direct forms. In addition, children involved in bullying may both be targeted and exert aggression themselves.
The Importance for Parents: What Parents Can Do To Prevent Bullying
For parents, it’s important to recognize signs in their sons and daughters that they may be involved in some or many forms of bullying and to address these experiences as soon as they arise. For example, checking in with children at the end of the day can include conversation about academic subjects as well as peer relationships. Questions such as the following, may encourage children to discuss their friendship experiences with their parents:
- ‘What did you do at recess today?”, or
- “How is your friend (name) doing these days?”
When children express negative emotions about their peers it is helpful to acknowledge these feelings, encourage them that it’s normal to feel this way, and to discuss practical strategies together, especially those that the child considers most helpful.
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- Craig, W. M., & Pepler, D. J. (2003). Identifying and targeting risk for involvement in bullying and victimization. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 48, 577 – 582.
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