There is a new female generational divide, and it doesn’t have to do with Gen Y vs. Gen Z. It has to do with how old you were when you discovered that rumors and taunts go much further if they’re spread via text than via whisper. It has to do with whether you were in college—or still stuck in middle school—when it became apparent a girl fight caught on a cell phone camera added up to instant notoriety.
A 25-year-old woman can remember rumors passed on folded notes in the back of class, or shared after the lights went out at sleepover parties. She remembers the 2004 premieres of MySpace and Facebook, but by then she was too mature to use the new tools of social networking to spread insults or incite conflict. By contrast, a girl who had just reached her tenth birthday in 2004 has lived out her burgeoning social life on the Internet. She probably knows girls who have engaged in cyber-bullying, sending harassing cell phone texts, or posting nasty Facebook messages or mortifying photos of someone they’re gunning to bring down. Maybe this girl has even done it herself. Maybe she has been caught in the middle.
The consequences can be serious—even deadly. Among girls 12 to 18, 1 in 2.97 report being bullied in a school year. Girls attempt suicide twice as often as boys. In January of 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Massachusetts, took her own life after being relentlessly hounded by a group of girls who were apparently irate that the freshman, recently arrived from Ireland, had briefly dated a senior on the football team.
Teen girls are also prone to verbal social disputes that sometimes escalate to physical aggression. According to the 2007 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report, 39.4% of black female high school students were engaged in a physical fight during the last year, as were 33.5% of Hispanic teens and 21.5% of white teens. US Department of Justice research into youth aggression suggests—as was the case in Massachusetts—that teen girl violence often grows out of competition for boys or a defense of one’s sexual reputation.
According to the US Department of Justice, the number of girls arrested for aggravated assault in 2003 was nearly double what it had been in 1980; the arrest rate for simple assault was more than triple. An FBI report looking just at the period from 1992 to 2003 came to an even more alarming conclusion: arrests of girls for assault climbed 40.9% during this 11-year period, while boys’ arrests climbed by only 4.3%.
Recently surveillance cameras recorded a 15-year-old girl viciously assaulting another girl in a Seattle bus tunnel, sparking a deluge of media attention on “girl violence.” And it’s just one of many videos of raucous girl fights readily available for viewing.
The Internet did not initiate girl-on-girl violence, but many researchers fear that the widespread video sharing of female fights might well be inciting an escalation in the level of violence. Social media platforms have undeniably facilitated and added cruel dimensions to the problem of hormonal aggression, but whether they have influenced the brutality of physical fights beyond anecdotal news reports remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is no question that the Internet can be a powerful, even lethal, weapon in the hands of a bully.