Mean girls get meaner online

Shouting. Swearing. Pushing.
Punching. It’s not Fight Club, it’s an average week at a suburban high school. And the protagonists are predominantly teenage girls.

“There were two [girl] fights in the first three days of school,” says 14-year-old Lisa (not her real name), a grade nine pupil at a co-ed government school in Johannesburg’s upmarket northern suburbs.

“The fights happen during break. There’s a lot of swearing and screaming, then pushing, hitting, punching. The whole school gathers round. It goes on for about 10 minutes. Then the teachers find out. Five or 10 teachers will run out of the staff room to break up a fight.”

Last year, during a substitution class, a girl at Lisa’s school hit another girl over the head with a chair and knocked her out. “No one said anything [to the teacher] because we were scared of the other girl.” In another incident at a nearby all-girls government high school, one girl had a braid pulled out of her hair during an argument.

“Girls are particularly good at this kind of emotional warfare. We call it social bullying,” says Vanessa Hemp, a psychologist who works with teenagers. And social bullying—roughly defined as psychological, emotional or physical harassment—seems to be fuelled by social networking. Fights often start with name-calling on Facebook, or on message platforms such as Blackberry Messenger and MXit.

“You can get really mean about each other,” Lisa says, “not to someone’s face, but you’ll say something to a friend. And the people you tell have really big mouths. People also tell lies—that a girl is having sex with people, that she looks like a slut. Someone accused another girl of stealing things from people’s houses.

“Girls make their statuses [a message posted by the user, which appears at the top of their profile information on social networking sites] about how they hate each other.

Think about it
“You really have to think about what you say. We joke with boys sometimes, the ones we’re close friends with. We say things like ‘I love you, my angel’. But if a girl likes that guy and she sees what you’ve posted, she’ll get angry and she could get physical. If you block someone and they find out, they also get really angry at you.”

One teacher, who used to teach grades eight to 11 at a private school in the Western Cape, says children can be brutal. “The children were on MXit or texting all the time and they’d say horrible things to each other. They don’t have personal boundaries because it’s not face to face. They would say whatever they like because they’re just talking to a machine.”

Hemp says that it is not that children are meaner these days, but they are angrier. “The need to belong is part of normal teenage angst. But technology has moved this into the realm of social networking and the difference is its reach—and that what they say is there in black and white. Teenagers now have access to tools and spaces where they can publicly humiliate and shame other people.

It’s like a ginormous secret club. Rules slide all over the place.” Hemp says that, despite being constantly in touch, these children are actually less connected than generations before.

“They can connect with people’s facades because online they don’t see themselves as vulnerable. But they don’t manage as well with actual social interactions, one-on-one engagement. They’re only able to pseudo-connect and this leads to more social awkwardness and uncomfortable feelings around that.”

‘Cognitive and emotional capacity’
Hemp says that these types of problems really begin to bubble at about age 14. “In the second year of high school they start unravelling. It’s also when their hormones are at a peak, but the cognitive and emotional capacity to deal with it has not yet evolved. Hormones make feelings harder to control and these are young kids—they’re not that good at impulse control to begin with.”

Researchers often refer to adolescent brains and bodies as being “under construction”—the ability to make complex judgments and control impulses spring from a part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) that experiences additional growth just before puberty and is one of the last areas of the brain to mature.

While teenage brains are able to learn and retain information faster than those of adults, it also means there is often a gap between coming up with a new idea and working out whether or not it is actually a good one.

Add the instant online life to that teenage mix and poorly considered impulse decisions reach critical mass with a click. When a fight breaks out, Lisa says, students take out their phones and film it, sometimes posting the footage on Facebook.

The alleged rape filmed at Jules High School last year and distributed among the pupils mirrored what is happening around the world. In recent months there have been several reported incidents of teenagers in the United States, Canada and Australia facing prosecution after using their cellphones to take videos and photographs of assault and sexual assault.

Last September two teenage boys in Canada were charged with sexual assault and possession and distribution of child pornography after they posted photographs on Facebook of the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl at a private party.

Girls are also increasingly using their bodies in schoolyard power plays. Says Lisa: “A lot of girls send boys naked pictures of themselves—they’ll send it to all their friends’ boyfriends.

Then they’ll say it was an accident, that they meant to send it to someone else on their contacts list. Usually you don’t see the face, just the body. But you get a name with the photo. A lot of girls also upload photos of themselves wearing their bras and they put it on their Facebook pages. All the boys comment.

“Guys don’t really send us naked pictures—usually just with their shirts off, because they’re trying to be cool for the girls.”

Hemp says that “there isn’t really a protection of childhood any more. Kids are exposed to stuff a lot younger. They all want to be a little Paris Hilton or whatever. When they connect with people online they don’t feel as vulnerable. It is and isn’t real. You don’t have to look that boy in the face when you take your clothes off.”

“Two weeks ago a boy came up to me at a party,” Lisa says, “and pointed to a girl and said: ‘Look at the photo she just sent me.’ It was her vagina no face no nothing. And then he turned away.”

How to prevent cyberbullying
What to teach your child to prevent cyberbullying:

  • If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online;

  • Respect other people and treat them the way you want to be treated;

  • Don’t contribute to cyberbullying by forwarding or adding to cruel messages;

  • Don’t be afraid to stand up to the cyberbully and report his or her behaviour to a teacher or trusted adult. The cyberbully is the one in the wrong;

  • Never tell anyone your online passwords or your cellphone PIN number. Never leave your cellphone lying around;

  • Never share personal information, such as your home address or phone number, online;

  • Never take naked or compromising pictures or videos of yourself or your friends on your cellphone. Even if you just share them among your friends, they can soon spread like wildfire. And it’s illegal;

  • Think before you react to something online;

  • If you are being victimised online, block the person doing it from your Facebook page or instant messaging account and communicate only with people you know;

  • Raise awareness of the serious consequences of cyberbullying with your friends and your community;

  • Talk to your parents about what you do online; don’t shut them out of your online life.

What you can do if you suspect your child is being bullied (online or in real life):

  • Talk to your children. Make sure they know they are loved unconditionally and have your support;

  • Don’t immediately ban them from all forms of communication. This is an overreaction and does not properly address the situation;

  • When appropriate, contact the parents of the cyberbully or meet a teacher from the school to discuss the situation;

  • Contact and work with the internet service provider, website or phone company to get the offending material removed or have the account or number blocked;

  • If physical threats are involved or you suspect a crime (like child pornography) has been committed, report it to the police;

  • If your child is being a cyberbully, enforce strict consequences.

Sources and useful websites:;;;—Tarryn Harbour