Does ‘Mean Girls’ Make Girls Mean?

September 18, 2008 08:58 AM
by Denis Cummings
A new study indicates that mean-spirited behavior exhibited in the media increases aggression in viewers as much as violent content does.

Relational Aggression Has Same Effect as Violence

Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne tested the way 53 college-age British women responded to movies featuring women being either violent or mean-spirited. The women were divided into three groups, watching clips from either “Kill Bill,” “Mean Girls” or a nonviolent movie. They were then asked questions by a rude researcher.

When asked to subject the researcher to a loud noise or to grade the researcher’s performance, the women who watched “Mean Girls” and “Kill Bill” were significantly more aggressive toward the researcher than the control group was. The study suggests that the effect of watching girls engage in indirect bullying of each other, known as relational aggression, is as harmful as watching violent images.

“Everyone’s concerned about violence in the media, as they should be, but we’re missing out on lots of violence out there,” said Coyne, whose study will appear in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “We need to look at these other types of aggression out there because we know that they’re having an effect on aggression.”

Background: Relational aggression

Relational aggression is a form of psychological bullying typically linked to girls. It involves indirect and often covert types of bullying, such as taunting, gossip, exclusion and cyberbullying.

“Studies show that relational and other nonphysical forms of aggression are just as harmful to a student’s ability to learn, grow and succeed,” writes The Ophelia Project, an organization dedicated to stopping relational aggression. “Relational aggression encompasses behaviors that harm others by damaging, threatening to damage or manipulating one’s relationships with his/her peers, or by injuring one’s feelings of social acceptance.”

According to a 1995 study by Nicki R. Crick and Jennifer K. Grotpeter, relationally aggressive children are likely to be unhappy about their relationships with others and may be depressed, lonely or social isolated.

Though it is most closely associated with teenage girls, relational aggression is found in both girls and boys of all ages, though boys and younger girls tend to be more overt in their aggression. According to a new study in Child Development by University of Arizona professor Noel A. Card, boys are just as likely as girls to be relationally aggressive.

“The researchers suggest that the myth that girls are more likely to be indirectly or socially aggressive than boys has persisted among teachers, parents, and even other researchers because of social expectations that develop early in life and recent movies and books that portray girls as mean and socially aggressive toward one another,” says a Society for Research in Child Development press release about the study.

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