Girls as well as boys engage in bullying behavior. Bullying has been described as a gendered phenomenon and a relationship problem. Understanding what these characterizations really mean requires investigating how gender influences every aspect of bullying relationships: how children understand bullying, contexts in which children bully, forms that bullying might take, processes by which bullying may unfold, and whether and how children feel empowered to respond or even to intervene. Examining how gender influences bullying requires careful thinking about gender differences in frequency of bullying behaviors, as well as moving beyond these differences to consider other ways in which gender might have an effect on the complex phenomenon of bullying.
Moving beyond consideration of gender differences in bullying requires careful consideration of where gender differences do and do not exist. In a large, nationally representative United States sample, it was found that boys reported perpetrating and being victimized by bullying more than girls.
When specific forms of victimization were examined, boys reported experiencing more physical bullying than girls, and girls reported more bullying by rumors and sexual comments. In another U.S. study, 4th and 5th graders responded to a survey about “Who bullies whom?” Boys were more likely to be bullies and bully-victims, and girls were more likely to be victims. In a study of developmental trajectories for bullying from ages 10 to 17 with a large Canadian sample, the high and moderate bullying trajectory groups included more boys than girls, and the trajectory group for low involvement included more girls than boys. One reason why boys may have a higher bullying trajectory than girls is that the definitions of bullying include physical and social aggression but do not differentiate between them. A wealth of evidence documents that boys are higher on physical anddirect
aggression than girls. However, gender differences are less clear for social aggression.40,41
Competing terms have been used to describe aggression that hurts others by disputing friendships or social status: indirect aggression, social aggression, and relational aggression. These constructs overlap; there is currently no consensus as to which is best, and empirical evidence does not clearly support their differentiation. A recent, large meta-analysis found the gender difference in social aggression so small as to be trivial. The gender oversimplification of social aggression has likely been fueled by popular media, as well as by gender stereotypes that portray girls as catty and manipulative — stereotypes that children seem to understand as early as preschool. Bullying is a subset of the broader phenomenon of aggression because criteria for bullying include chronicity and a power imbalance. Still, the fact that bullying is broadly defined to include physical and social aggression may explain why boys are characterized as higher on perpetrating bullying; boys are clearly higher on physical aggression but gender differences in social aggression seem small if they exist at all.16,42
Though researchers use a precise definition of bullying, children themselves may conceive of this phenomenon differently and conceptions of bullying may differ for girls and boys. In a study with a large sample of children from 14 different Asian and European countries, children were shown 25 cartoons of stick figures depicting social encounters with simple captions, and were asked to sort the cartoons as to whether the situation did or did not constitute various terms for bullying behaviors in each native language.
Overall, boys and girls had very similar conceptions of what was and was not bullying, and six types of terms referring to bullying emerged. These included 1) bullying of all types, verbal and physical, 2) verbal only, 3)social
exclusion, 4) physical only, and 5) mostly physical. Young children (8-year- olds) primarily distinguished between aggressive and non-aggressive behaviors but 14-year-olds made distinctions between physical bullying, verbal bullying, and social exclusion.43,44
Another study examined whether gender differences in conceptions of bullying emerge when 8 to 18-year-old children were asked to provide their own definition. Interestingly, both boys’ and girls’ definitions rarely included the three criteria of the research definition, which are intentionality (1.7%), chronicity (6%), and power imbalance (25%). Girls in this study were more likely than boys to mention social aggression in their definitions of bullying, especially during middle childhood. These results strongly suggest that social aggression is more common in girls’ conceptions of bullying and that understanding the phenomenon of bullying for both gender groups requires consideration of both subtle and overt forms.43,44
If bullying is indeed a gendered, relationship phenomenon, then it is important to understand whether the social processes involved in bullying differ for girls and boys. Because many studies have relied on surveys to study bullying, our knowledge of social processes in bullying is scant.
However, existing work provides some interesting clues. Girls and boys seem likely to play different roles in the group process of bullying. According to self- and peer-reports, girls are more likely to assume the roles of defender and outsider, whereas boys are more likely to play the roles of bully, reinforce, and assistant. Similarly, a U.S. study found that according to self-reports, girls are more often classified in an uninvolved cluster for bullying, whereas boys are more likely to be classified in bully, victim, and bully-victimgroups.
A naturalistic, observational study of peer intervention in playground bullying found that girls were more likely to intervene in bullying when the bully and victim were female, and boys were more likely to intervene when the bully and victim were male. Girls and boys were equally likely to intervene and their interventions were equally effective. Girls and boys used physical aggression to intervene at similar rates, but girls’ attempts were more likely to involve verbal assertion than were boys’ interventions. Girls’ bullying may take subtle forms and even be associated with social power. In support of this hypothesis, a recent study found that compared to boys identified as bullies, girl bullies were more socially and less physically aggressive, reported greater friendship intimacy, and were rated by peers as more attractive. If girls’ bullying is more likely to be verbal or social and less likely to be physical, then an important context for examining gender and bullying is electronic communication, where bullying must be conveyed by verbal communication.10,17,45
Cyberbullying is an important context in which to examine gender differences and bullying. Gender differences in the context of cyberbullying are discussed below.