Editor’s note: Dr. Katie Hurley, author of “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls,” is the senior clinical adviser of The Jed Foundation. She specializes in work with tweens, teens and young adults.
A high school senior recounted the past few weeks to me, trying to find the point where everything went wrong.
She read through old text messages and dissected all her social media posts as well as those from her old friend group. If she could just find a way to convince them to take her back, she thought, she might save her senior year from ruin.
The friend group breakup was swift and played out both at a party and on social media.
Her crime? Showing up late to a birthday party because she went out with friends from a previous school first without telling anyone. She double-booked and got caught on Instagram Stories. Members of the group told her to leave the party, humiliated her and blocked her number. Then they got on Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok. In short, she was canceled.
Relational aggression among teens isn’t anything new, but it can be especially hideous when it plays out alongside cyberbullying. In some cases, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the two subtypes of bullying.
Relational aggression includes attempts to damage the reputation of another person or existing relationships and can involve gossip, rumors, manipulation, social isolation, public humiliation, threats of harm, hateful commentary and even hateful written content.
One in five students report bullying, with a higher percentage of male-identifying students reporting physical bullying (6% versus 4%) and a higher percentage of female-identifying students reporting being the subject of rumors (18% versus 9%) and being purposely excluded from social events (7% versus 4%), according to statistics compiled by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. More than 70% of LGBTQ students reported verbal bullying, including being called names and threatened.
While cyberbullying occurs within the context of some form of a digital device, many of the behaviors are similar. Cyberbullying can consist of name-calling, hate speech (including religious based and racial bullying), threats of harm, rumors, constantly being asked for location and details, receiving unwanted images (called cyberflashing) and sharing of explicit images without consent (revenge porn). There is a lot of crossover, and the data on cyberbullying shows that teens are struggling.
Some 46% of 13- to 17-year-olds report experiencing at least one cyberbullying incident, with 32% reporting offensive name-calling and 22% reporting having rumors spread about them online, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. These incidents can occur on social media but also via text, email, online document services and video game chats.
Relational aggression among minors is complex
Cancel culture trickled down to teens, tweens and even younger children, and the combination of cyberbullying and social isolation in school can be swift. In other cases, manipulation plays a role in ongoing relational aggression. Sometimes teens are lured back into their former groups only to endure humiliation, rumors and isolation all over again. No matter how it plays out, relational aggression harms people.
It’s also important to note that students sometimes switch roles. The aggressor one week might become a victim another week as a different person gains power within the group. Teens often tell me that one small misstep, such as a comment that one person doesn’t like, can be the error that causes the group to turn. Trying to manage friendships becomes stressful and includes hypervigilance in an effort to avoid making social errors.
‘Mean Girls’ is a dated phrase
The reasons for being bullied reported most often include physical appearance, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, religion and sexuality, according to PACER. While female-identifying students report double the rate of rumors than male-identifying students and just under twice the rate of social exclusion, these issues affect students regardless of gender identity.
Teens are using maladaptive strategies, such as spreading rumors and targeting certain peers, to manage conflict and cope with negative social interactions. When we solely focus on female-identifying students by chalking it up to “Mean Girls” stuff and calling it a rite of passage, we ignore the fact that all students are growing up in this challenging landscape of multiple social worlds.
The post-Covid social lag is real
School closures and restrictions on social gatherings to reduce the spread of Covid-19 significantly reduced teens’ opportunities to socialize and to endure and work through the usual growing pains of adolescence together. They connected in tiny online video squares and social media posts during that time, which limited how they experienced friendship.
While the disruptions affected the day-to-day lives of teens in a myriad of ways, it also may have had a negative impact on brain development. Teen brains appeared to age about three years during a 10-month period, according to the results of a small October study, supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, that included MRI scans of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17.
The areas of the brain affected by this premature aging included the hippocampus, amygdala and cortex, responsible for memory, emotion regulation, and self-control and problem-solving, respectively.
It’s reasonable to expect that teens are struggling to cope with their emotions, handle conflict in an effective manner and work through problems at this time. It’s up to the adults around them to know that and help them scaffold these skills.
Protective factors are essential
Teens need sources of support and understanding when they’re dealing with relational aggression and cyberbullying, and this is where protective factors become important.
Factors that contribute to positive mental health outcomes include having at least one close friend, family support, one anchor in the school environment (teacher, coach, counselor), staff awareness of and willingness to take bullying seriously, problem-solving and coping skills, and opportunities to socialize outside of the source of relational aggression.
Parents and caregivers can help more than they think
If all this information has your head spinning, slow down and take a beat. It’s difficult to bear witness to teens enduring emotional pain for any reason, including all forms of bullying.
Here are steps that parents and guardians can take to support teens:
• Believe them the first time. Resist the urge to question every story and choose to be present with them.
• Validate their experiences and emotions.
• Empathize with your teen. You don’t need to solve every problem, but you do need to communicate empathy and understanding.
• Ask open-ended questions to give your teen time to process what’s happening.
• Brainstorm action steps together. Filing incident reports can feel overwhelming and scary, so take time to discuss different options.
• Resist the urge to share information in social media groups or by text. Right now, you need to focus on your teen.
• Research the reporting options at your teen’s school in case your teen decides to seek help on campus.
• Talk about resources such as therapy, group support or other sources of social support.
All forms of bullying are hurtful and can negatively affect the mental health of the victim. What’s difficult about relational aggression is that it’s often subtle and under the radar of adults working in teen spaces.
One thing we can all do is talk more openly about these behaviors and lean into empathy development as a healthy component of raising teens who care about the emotional well-being of other teens.
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