Don’t Cry, Don’t Raise Your Eye, It’s Only Teenage Wasteland

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Alan E. Kazdin and Carlo Rotella at Slate:

Authorities brought a series of charges Monday against nine teenagers accused of incessantly bullying 15-year-old South Hadley high school student Phoebe Prince for months before she killed herself. Last year, Alan E. Kazdin and Carlo Rotella cautioned against common but ineffective responses to bullying and outlined some solutions that actually work. The article is reprinted below.

Let’s say you find out that your child is being bullied by a schoolmate. Naturally, you want to do something right now to make it stop. Depending on your temperament and experience, one or more of four widely attempted common-sense solutions will occur to you: telling your child to stand up to the bully, telling your child to try to ignore and avoid the bully, taking matters into your own hands by calling the bully’s parents or confronting the bully yourself, or asking your child’s teacher to put a stop to it.

These responses share three features:

1) They all express genuine caring, concern, and good intentions.
2) You will feel better for taking action.
3) They are likely to be ineffective.

In order to understand why, let’s focus on two aspects of bullying: It arises from a differential in power, and it’s heavily contextual.

[...]

Bullying is not just two children arguing or even hitting each other. Rather, one exploits a power differential—in strength or audacity—to repeatedly intimidate the other. Usually that takes the form of repeated attacks that can range from physical assault to verbal insults, threats, social aggression (like excluding the victim from activities), and the newer-order variants grouped under the heading “cyber bullying”: offensive and threatening text messages or messages posted on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Bullying is fairly common: In one large-scale national study of elementary and middle school students, 17 percent reported having been bullied, 19 percent said they bullied others, and 6 percent reported bullying and being bullied.

We know a few things about bullies as a group. They often have an impulsive temperament, don’t get enough parental supervision, and have had significant exposure to models of aggressive behavior in the home (harsh punishment, domestic violence) and media (TV and video games that model bullying). Most bullies are boys, and male bullies use physical violence more often than female ones, but girls do it, too. Bullies are often more confident, fearless, and socially astute than we tend to assume (the old notion of a bully as a cowardly cretin with low self-esteem seems to be inaccurate), and they are often quite popular in the lower grades. But they tend to lose popularity as school progresses, become socially isolated, and have poor academic outcomes. They are more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol as they enter adolescence and to engage in criminal behavior in later years. But knowing all that has not helped much in coming up with ways to reduce or eliminate bullying.

Context, not the individual attributes of bullies or their victims, is the key to prevention. Bullying between children happens in places where adults cannot easily detect it—in the halls, at recess, at the bus stop, waiting in lines. Adults typically do not know about such bullying unless there are flagrant and very frequent episodes or they happen to see it with their own eyes, which is relatively rare (teachers detect only about 4 percent of all incidents), since a competent bully chooses opportunities precisely to exploit a lack of adult supervision.

Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind at New York Times:

However, many of the news reports and inflamed commentaries have gone beyond expressing outrage at the teenagers involved and instead invoked such cases as evidence of a modern epidemic of “mean girls” that adults simply fail to comprehend. Elizabeth Scheibel, the district attorney in the South Hadley case, declined to charge school officials who she said were aware of the bullying because of their “lack of understanding of harassment associated with teen dating relationships.” A People magazine article headlined “Mean Girls” suggested that a similar case two years ago raised “troubling questions” about “teen violence” and “cyberspace wars.” Again and again, we hear of girls hitting, brawling and harassing.

But this panic is a hoax. We have examined every major index of crime on which the authorities rely. None show a recent increase in girls’ violence; in fact, every reliable measure shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years. Major offenses like murder and robbery by girls are at their lowest levels in four decades. Fights, weapons possession, assaults and violent injuries by and toward girls have been plunging for at least a decade.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports, based on reports from more than 10,000 police agencies, is the most reliable source on arrests by sex and age. From 1995 to 2008, according to the F.B.I., girls’ arrest rates for violent offenses fell by 32 percent, including declines of 27 percent for aggravated assault, 43 percent for robbery and 63 percent for murder. Rates of murder by girls are at their lowest levels in at least 40 years.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, a detailed annual survey of more than 40,000 Americans by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, is considered the most reliable measure of crime because it includes offenses not reported to the police. From 1993 through 2007, the survey reported significant declines in rates of victimization of girls, including all violent crime (down 57 percent), serious and misdemeanor assaults (down 53 percent), robbery (down 83 percent) and sex offenses (down 67 percent).

Public health agencies like the National Center for Health Statistics confirm huge declines in murder and violent assaults of girls. For example, as the number of females ages 10 to 19 increased by 3.4 million, murders of girls fell from 598 in 1990 to 376 in 2006. Rates of murders of and by adolescent girls are now at their lowest levels since 1968 — 48 percent below rates in 1990 and 45 percent lower than in 1975.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Intimate Partner Violence in the United States survey, its annual Indicators of School Crime and Safety, the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey and the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance all measure girls’ violent offending and victimization. Virtually without exception, these surveys show major drops in fights and other violence, particularly relationship violence, involving girls over the last 15 to 20 years. These surveys also indicate that girls are no more likely to report being in fights, being threatened or injured with a weapon, or violently victimizing others today than in the first surveys in the 1970s.

These striking improvements in girls’ personal safety, including from rape and relationship violence, directly contradict recent news reports that girls suffer increasing danger from violence by their female and male peers alike.

Sady Doyle at Salon:

Unfortunately, cruelty between girls can’t really be measured with the hard crime statistics on which Males and Lind’s argument relies. That’s part of what makes it so insidious. As Rachel Simmons wrote in “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Teenage Girls,” bullying between teenage girls expresses itself as physical fighting less often than it does as relational aggression, a soft and social warfare often conducted between girls who seem to be friends. You can’t measure rumors, passive-aggressive remarks, alienation and shaming with statistics. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t damaging or common — or, you know, mean. There’s a difference between being cruel and being violent — a difference that the Times piece seems not to recognize, actually — but cases like that of Prince, or Megan Meier, who committed suicide after being harassed by Lori Drew on MySpace, show that the consequences can be distressingly similar. Girls may not murder people very often, but neither Prince nor Meier were murdered; they were taunted and bullied to the point that suicide seemed like their only option.

The Times Op-Ed is right that girl-on-girl violence does attract a disproportionate amount of attention. The Prince and Meier cases made national news; lesser but still serious offenses, like a string of beatings by girls posted on YouTube, are headline grabbers and commentary bait. So, why do female bullies get so much more airtime than male bullies? Well, the most obvious answer is that they’re more visible to us these days: on YouTube, on MySpace in Meier’s case, and on Facebook in Prince’s. (One of her alleged tormentors posted “accomplished” as her status message on the day she died.) The Internet doesn’t increase cruelty so much as make it more transparent and searchable; actual crime rates may be going down, but the aggression between girls is more visible than it has ever been. Then, there’s the fact that, since we don’t expect violence from teen girls — those silly, sweet, kittenish creatures, all of whom are imagined, somehow, to possess a vague temperamental resemblance to Ann-Margret in “Bye Bye Birdie” — it’s shocking when we see it. And “shocking” translates to “reportable.” Show some teen boys in a fistfight, and no one is surprised; show girls doing the same thing, and it’s news.

It’s easy to poke holes in Meyer and Lind’s argument, with its reliance on hard crime stats. Still, they have one thing right. Focusing on cruelty committed by girls is sensational, and more than a little cheap. People, and often young people in particular, often make life hellish for each other. Instead of focusing on woman’s inhumanity to woman, maybe we should point out that a regrettably large portion of the world can be inhumane. Including many boys.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon:

But I will say that the focus on “mean girls” often misses the way that sexism is a major factor.  Worse, it often comes across as anti-feminist denial that there’s a problem.  “Women can be cruel, too,” the argument seems to go, “So obviously sexism isn’t the problem here.”

Wrong, on two counts.  I went out with the blogger Pilgrim Soul and others last night, and we talked a little about high school bullying, because of the posts.  I pointed out that when I was in high school, the girls could be evil, but they rarely reached the levels the boys could reach in terms of violent abusiveness.  I never had a girl grab my ass or throw something at me.  Most physical bullying was absent, in fact.  And you don’t have a lot of girls ganging up and sexually assaulting their victims.  You don’t have a lot of boys go that length, either, but when it does happen, it tends to be boys way more than girls.

Pilgrim pointed out the other aspect of this, which is how much female bullying is about the boys.  Boys conferred social status on girls—if the popular boys didn’t like someone, she was socially done for, even if her female friends didn’t want to eject her from the group.  The most vicious bullying girls engage in is over boys, fighting for their approval and attacking girls who are seen as getting attention or some other boy-provided goodies that the girl is assumed not to earn.  (Which is, from what I understand, a major issue here.) The focus on mean girls rarely acknowledges this issue, instead acting like fights over boys and boy-related issues like clothing and looks, have nothing to do with what the boys want or do.  We’re in love with the image of the doofy jock who has no idea what a meanie his girlfriend is to the girls—think of the dynamic on the show “Glee”—but the ugly reality is that boys often cheer this behavior on, and they often have as much social control over the mean girls as the mean girls have over other girls.

After all, there’s a lot for which girls will compete in high school.  There’s grades, sports, extracurricular activities, even jobs.  I competed with my peers on many fields in high school.  But bullying only occurred in the context of fights over popularity, and popularity is about boys, and who does the best job at being the kind of girl that the boys are supposed to like.  You wouldn’t see a girl hounded by bullies until she committed suicide because she beat some mean girl at the debate championship.  It was the mom of a wannabe cheerleader, not a wannabe track star, that put a hit out on the competition’s mother in Texas all those years ago.  Sadly, at the heart of these incidents is always boys and popularity.  So yes, I blame the patriarchy.

Rod Dreher:

The kind of emotional violence mean girls (and mean boys) visit on their victims in high schools does not get reported to police. Almost nothing that was done to me in my high school would have counted as a crime, and I would never have considered calling the police. I’m glad that the crime stats on “mean girl” violence have been going down, but to claim that this means there are no such things as mean girls, or that the school bullying problem more generally is overblown, is not only absurd, it’s potentially dangerous. Phoebe Prince wasn’t murdered by the hands of mean girls. She killed herself, driven to it by the relentless emotional cruelty of mean girls.

I know someone in therapy because of his abusive childhood. He told me once that he kept saying to his therapist that his childhood couldn’t have been abusive, because his father had never hit him. His therapist finally made him see that the relentless emotional cruelty he endured — the yelling, the humiliation, and so forth — had been genuinely abusive. It completely changed his life, what he went through, and he still struggles with it mightily today. And nothing that man’s father did would have shown up on a crime statistics report.

UPDATE: Emily Bazelon and Ann Althouse at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #2: Ross Douthat quotes Christopher Caldwell at Financial Times

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2 Comments

Filed under Crime, Education, Families, Feminism

2 responses to “Don’t Cry, Don’t Raise Your Eye, It’s Only Teenage Wasteland

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