The Difference Between Bullying And ViolenceS

Did an epidemic of "mean girls" cause high-schooler Phoebe Prince's suicide? Write Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind, "this panic is a hoax." But we're not sure they understand what "mean" means.

Males and Lind make a convincing case that girls aren't getting more violent. In a Times op-ed, they write,

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.

After marshaling the relevant statistics to prove these points, they conclude,

Why, in an era when slandering a group of people based on the misdeeds of a few has rightly become taboo, does it remain acceptable to use isolated incidents to berate modern teenagers, particularly girls, as "mean" and "violent" and "bullies"? That is, why are we bullying girls?

A fair question — except that nobody's saying bullies attacked Prince (with the exception, apparently, of a thrown beverage container). The girls charged in connection with her suicide are accused of "verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse" (emphasis mine). So when the mother of one of the suspects asserted that her daughter "did not physically assault" Prince, her statement was a bit beside the point, as are Males's and Lind's statistics on violence. Both arguments sound a little like the arguments bullies themselves often make: "but I didn't hit her!"

This is not to assume guilt on the part of the girls charged, or to invalidate Males's and Lind's point that hysteria over "mean girls" can be unhelpful. And we should also remember that boys as well as girls are charged in connection with Prince's death — bullies come in both genders. But as Sady Doyle points out on Broadsheet, what's often so problematic about bullying is that it doesn't involve physical violence, and is thus harder to track, prevent, and punish. This doesn't mean we should construe Prince's death as part of some sort of bullying epidemic — it's likely that kids today are no worse than they ever were, though the Internet does offer new avenues for cruelty. But we should take Prince's death as a sad but necessary opportunity to stop bullying — and we shouldn't confuse real efforts to do so with "bullying girls."

The Myth Of Mean Girls [NYT]
Suspect's Mother: ‘My Daughter Never Fought With' Phoebe Prince [Boston Herald]
Mean Girls Aren't A Myth [Broadsheet]

Earlier: Bullies Charged In Teen's Suicide, But Questions Remain