Meanness and Means

April 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

On March 27, the Times ran an op-ed by David Elkind, “Playtime is Over,” about the causes of bullying:

it seems clear that there is a link among the rise of television and computer games, the decline in peer-to-peer socialization and the increase of bullying in our schools.
I was skeptical. Had there really been an increase in bullying? Elkind offered no evidence. He cited numbers for current years (school absences attributable to bullying), but he had no comparable data for the pre-computer or pre-TV eras. Maybe he was giving a persuasive explanation for something that didn’t exist.

I sent the Times a letter expressing my doubts. They didn’t publish it. Elkind is, after all, a distinguished psychologist, author many books on child development. As if to prove the point, three days later, the big bullying story broke. An Irish girl in South Hadley, Massachusetts committed suicide after having been bullied by several other girls in her high school. The nastiness had included Facebook postings and text messages.

I guess Elkind was right, and I was wrong. Bullying has really exploded out of control in the electronic age.

But today the op-ed page features “The Myth of Mean Girls,” by Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind. They look at all the available systematic evidence on nastiness by teenagers – crime data (arrests and victimizations), surveys on school safety, the Monitoring the Future survey, and the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. They all show the same trend:
This mythical wave of girls’ violence and meanness is, in the end, contradicted by reams of evidence from almost every available and reliable source.
Worse, say the authors, the myth has had unfortunate consequences:

. . . more punitive treatment of girls, including arrests and incarceration for lesser offenses like minor assaults that were treated informally in the past, as well as alarmist calls for restrictions on their Internet use.*
This is not to say that bullying is O.K. and nothing to worry about. Mean girls exist. It’s just that the current generation has fewer of them than did their parents’ generation. Should we focus on the mean or on the average? On average, the kids are not just all right; they’re nicer. Funny that nobody is offering explanations of how the Internet and cell phones might have contributed to this decline in meanness.

*For a recent example, see my post about criminal charges brought against young teenage girls for “sexting,” even though the pictures showed no naughty bits.

UPDATE: At, Sady Doyle argues that Lind and Males looked at the wrong data.

Unfortunately, cruelty between girls can't really be measured with the hard crime statistics on which Males and Lind's argument relies. . . . 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.
She has a point. While most of the evidence Males and Lind cite is not “hard crime statistics,” it does focus on overt violence. But Doyle is wrong that you can’t measure “relational aggression.” If something exists, you can measure it. The problem is that your measure might not be valid enough to be of use.

If Doyle is right, if nonphysical bullying hasn’t been measured, that doesn’t mean that Males and Lind are wrong and that bullying has in fact increased. It means that we just don’t know. We do know that physical violence has decreased. So here are the possibilities.

  1. Physical and nonphysical aggression are inversely related. Girls have substituted nonphysical aggression for physical aggression – social bullying has increased.
  2. Less serious forms of aggression usually track with more serious forms (nationwide, the change in assault rates runs parallel to the change in murder rates). So we can use rates of physical aggression as a proxy for rates of bullying – social bullying has decreased.
  3. Physical and nonphysical aggression are completely unrelated, caused by different factors and in found in different places – the change in social bullying is anybody’s guess.

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