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Mean Boys: Social Bullying Isn't Just for Girls

A new study shows that boys can shun and ostracize with the best of them. We’ll have to drop our “mean girls” bias to better understand how they do it.
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(Photo: Chris_Parfitt/Flickr)

(Photo: Chris_Parfitt/Flickr)

Throughout all the changes in education theories, few basic premises remain basically the same. One of these is that girls and boys socialize and fight in fundamentally different ways.

Popular awareness of “mean girls,” the idea that young women socialize in underhanded and particularly cruel ways, started in the early 2000s with two books in particular, Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons, and Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes. There’s an entire movie about this concept, 2004’s Mean Girls; you can see similar themes as far back as 1988’s Heathers and also, arguably, Jane Austen’s Emma.

The concept is quantified in earlier 20th-century psychology literature on relational and covert aggression, Meda Chesney-Lind, professor of women's studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, writes in an email exchange. “Relational aggression” involves ostracizing, shunning, spreading mean stories about people, and not inviting them to participate in social activities. In contrast, boys’ aggression is more overt and physical, according to previous research. “Mean boys” is not a term frequently employed, but when it’s used, we generally means bullies—guys who taunt other boys. And then hit them.

"Mean girls"-style behavior declined significantly from grade six to 12, but of the group of students reporting "high aggression," some 66.7 percent were boys.

The full picture, it appears, is more complex than that. A new paper from University of Georgia researchers published in Aggressive Behavior indicates that teenage boys don’t shy away from “mean girls”-style bullying—in fact, they may do it more often than girls. The study followed 600 teenage students in six Georgia school districts over the course of seven years. In yearly surveys, the students self-reported incidents in which they were the perpetrators or victims of relational aggression, defined as harming people by damaging or manipulating peer relationships.

Virtually everyone—96 percent of all students—had passed a rumor or nasty comment about someone else in school at some point during the time they were surveyed. However, most students fell in the “low” or “moderate” categories of perpetrating relational aggression. “Mean girls”-style behavior declined significantly from grade six to 12, but of the group of students reporting “high aggression," some 66.7 percent were boys. Pamela Orpinas, lead author on the study, explained in the New York Times: “People say, ‘well, boys are physically aggressive, but girls are aggressive in their relationships,’ and it just does seem to be a myth.”

Understanding how children behave around each other, and how they fight, has important implications for the future because school bullying has become a major issue in education policy. Almost one in three American teens has been bullied in the course of their school career. There are now anti-bullying programs of one sort or another in 49 American states (all except for Montana). Passing and ramping up such legislation is a growing trend among legislators. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in 2012 when proposing anti-cyberbullying legislation: “More than anything, we have to get these kids to understand the damage they can do and the harm that they can cause.” A clearer picture of how boys and girls bully and hurt each other might give us a better idea about how to fix the problem.

Much attention in recent months has been thrown onto how male relational aggression manifests on the Internet. Women face a disproportionate amount of threats—especially sexual threats—on the Internet compared to men, as cited in multiplereports last year and culminating in the Gamergate controversy. Back in 2011, Alanah Pearce, an adult woman from Australia, faced a barrage of threatening responses and rape threats from men for her video game reviews. As Meredith Haggerty at On the Media explained, "The issuers of some of the most vile messages looked really, really young. Like prepubescent young.”

Haggerty suggested that a pack mentality fuels this sort of behavior among young boys. Orpinas tells me that since there’s not much research on male relational aggression, it’s hard to tell. “There are books and movies about mean girls,” she explains. “There are websites about them. They’re common in popular media. But we don’t have much on boys.”

The new bullying, the new meanness, is in some ways less gendered than we suspected. For boys, it appears that many of the worst parts have moved online. Unless we drop the misconception that only girls play manipulative social games, we’re missing a whole other side of how kids bully each other.