Are Girls Meaner than Boys? Research Says No.

It may be said by some that an unflattering stereotypes exists of girls—particularly teenage girls—to be catty, manipulative back-stabbers.  But are girls meaner than boys? Dr. Marion K. Underwood, our recent Hinckley Lecturer, and a prolific researcher on the subject, particularly in the context of social media, says no.

According to Underwood’s research, the size of the gender difference in indirect aggression is so small that it is certainly negligible.

What was found, however, was that although girls and boys engage in social aggression equally often, social aggression may take different forms in boys and girls – and have different social consequences.

To test whether or not there really was a difference between boys and girls in social aggression, Underwood and her colleagues conducted a study of kids who nominated each other as best friends as they interacted with a newcomer.

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The study showed that boys had a higher level of verbal social exclusion. Boys were more likely to say: “you can’t play with us” or “shut up.” But girls had a dramatically higher tendency to use non-verbal means to exclude others.

“It may be that it is the non-verbal social aggression that may be the sole province of girls,” says Underwood. She adds:

“A lot of research from social psychology shows that girls and women define themselves on the basis of their relationships. and perhaps because we care so much about close relationships and high regard  from others, especially when angry, when we want to hurt somebody, we might seek to attack the social status and friendships of others.”

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What Parents Can Do:

Dr. Underwood gave a few suggestions for parents to help their children learn to be socially inclusive.

  • From the beginning be clear that social aggression hurts others and that you won’t tolerate the behavior. “We need to say, ‘That hurts people’s feelings. That’s not okay. Stop doing that.'”
  • Refrain from modeling social aggression for children.
  • Interrupt social aggression when you observe it among your child with peers. They should know, at the very least, that you – the parent – don’t approve of it. 
  • Talk with your child about what type of friend they want to be, what kinds of friends they want to have, and convey that everyone deserves friends they can trust.
  • Encourage your child to intervene with peers to interrupt social aggression — silence conveys approval, so speak up and say anything to help it stop.

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One study showed that, during a typical school lunch, after one person made an ugly remark about someone else, 80% of the time nearly everyone else at the table would join in, piling on their rude remarks. However, the other 20% of the time, one person present would immediately “challenge” the negative statement. They didn’t need to necessarily  oppose the statement. Changing the subject was often a simple enough strategy.

“If one person spoke up  immediately, [the gossip] was over. It was done.”

If this happened, nobody else joined in. It had to be immediate or it didn’t work. It didn’t make a difference who made a statement, as long as it was made. Encouraging children to defend others by challenging negative statements can be an effective means of curbing social aggression.

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Hope for the Future

Though kids do engage in negative interactions part of the time, research shows that most of what happens between them is positive and good. “When you…read the popular media,” says Dr. Underwood, “it’s so tempting to think that young people do these behaviors all the time, that they’re constantly being hateful and manipulative. But I believe that nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Perhaps, then, the best way to fix negative social interactions could be to simply replace it with the positive. “Children and adolescents can be wonderfully kind, pro-social, courageous and positive leaders,” says Underwood, “And I think that’s ultimately the hope of bringing down levels of negative behavior among youth.”

How do you encourage YOUR youth to be inclusive?

The full video of Dr. Underwood’s lecture can be seen here.

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