Who hasn’t heard the term “mean girls?” Instantly it brings to mind a catty group of teenaged girls doing their best to exclude some other girl, probably by talking about her behind her back. Turns out, that picture’s all wrong. Boys are slightly more likely to hurt others in this way, a new study finds, while girls more frequently report being victims of such social abuse.

“I was surprised by these results,” Dr. Pamela Orpinas, professor in the University of Georgia Department of Health Promotion and Behavior and lead author of the new study, told Medical Daily. “After all, the majority of websites, books, TV shows, and qualitative studies are about the relational aggression of girls, not boys.". Apparently, most of what we see and hear gets the gender all wrong.

Relational Aggression

When you exclude or reject, as opposed to physically hurt, another person, you are perpetrating what’s known as relational aggression. Once called indirect or social aggression, the term refers to harming someone by spreading negative rumors, say, or talking about a person behind their back — essentially, sabotaging their relationships with others. Since girls generally use less physical aggression than boys, does this mean they are more likely to use relational aggression? Many, including Orpinas, have wondered about the answer to this and other questions.

To learn more about relational aggression among teens, Orpinas and her colleagues conducted a study to identify not only whether girls are more likely to be mean in this way than boys, but also to trace the trajectories of this aggression between grades 6 and 12. The sample of teens who participated included 620 students from nine middle schools in northeast Georgia, an area of higher crime and poverty than American schools on average. Just about equally divided between boys and girls, nearly half of the students were white, a third black, and the remainder Latino. "This is one aspect of a large study in trying to understand social development from middle to high school," Orpinas said.

What did Orpinas and her research team discover? Almost all students reported at least one act of aggression or one act of victimization during the seven years of the study. More than half of the students (about 55 percent) could be classified in the “low” category for perpetrating relational aggression. However, more boys (55 percent) than girls (45 percent) were in the moderate group, and more boys (66 percent) than girls (33 percent) ranked within the high group.

“What we’re seeing here is that there is a higher proportion of boys in the highest levels of perpetatration,” Orpinas said. "It may just be a myth that girls are more relationally aggressive than boys." Additionally, more boys (61 percent) fell into the lowest group of victimization when compared to girls (39 percent) with more girls (57 percent) ranking in the moderate group compared to boys (43 percent).

“Girls may be more sensitive to relational aggression… and more observant of social norms and status,” Orpinas said, which may account for a greater number of girls seeing themselves as victims of relational aggression.

Good News

Happily, the study uncovered some very good news. Overall, the students reported a decrease in both aggression and victimization over time, such that the lines on the graph fall dramatically between grades 6 and 12. For the victims, time is a great friend.

Source: Orpinas P, McNicholas C, Nahapetyan L. Gender differences in trajectories of relational aggression perpetration and victimization from middle to high school. Aggressive Behavior. 2014.