Regina Leader-Post

Girls' cruelty can be deadly

The Leader-Post (Regina)
Thursday, August 01, 2002

MONTREAL (CP) -- Girls may be biologically hard-wired to engage in sophisticated, non-violent forms of aggression that can hurt just as much as a punch in the face from a boy, a conference heard Wednesday.

Indirect aggression among young girls includes gossip, backbiting and social isolation, which researchers say can drive victims to suicide in extreme cases.

Researchers at a conference in Montreal this week said society may be encouraging indirect aggression among girls in the mistaken belief that such forms of conflict are a suitable alternative to fighting.

Psychologist and researcher John Archer said western society may have underestimated the dangers of non-physical conflict.

"(In the past) it really wasn't really seen as a problem," Archer, who studies gender differences and human aggression at the University of Central Lancashire in England, said in an interview. "But when it leads to somebody committing suicide, then it is seen as a problem."

Archer was one of 250 delegates to the conference of the International Society for Research on Aggression, which studies aggression and violence.

The conference ended Wednesday, although a similar one-day symposium will be held at McGill University today.

Researchers still can't explain why young girls act out their aggression in different ways from boys, but biology is believed to be a factor.

According to one theory, females avoid physical combat because it wouldn't serve their biological role to provide for their offspring.

It's also believed that testosterone, which boys possess in larger quantities than girls, may result in the higher rates of physical aggression typically displayed in young males.

Archer said physical aggression in males and females reaches its peak around the age of two, because toddlers are too young to articulate their displeasure verbally.

A gender split sets in by kindergarten, with boys opting to fight out their differences, while girls adopt more subtle forms of conflict.

As boys enter adulthood, their tendency toward physical aggression decreases, and they opt instead for the indirect aggression typical among females.

Sylvana Cote, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Montreal, said Wednesday that school-age girls may lash out at each other by spreading lies and ruining reputations.

Other examples of indirect aggression might include social isolation, where a group of girls intentionally exclude another female from their clique.

"It has a lot of negative consequences," said Cote.

"It touches bullying and in that sense there are lot of efforts going into preventing bullying these days."

Several cases of verbal taunting have led to suicides in Canada in the last few years.

A 15-year-old Halifax girl was charged last week with extortion and assault, three months after a boy she allegedly bullied killed himself.

Emmet Fralick, 14, shot himself at his home on April 8, leaving a suicide note saying he couldn't take any more bullying.

Vancouver resident Dawn-Marie Wesley, 14, hanged herself in November 2000 after talking on the phone with girls who bullied her.

Experts are studying the role that family histories, peer groups and school environment may play in determining and preventing indirect aggression in children.

Cote cites research that shows the perpetrators of such acts tend to have troubled personal histories.

The trends of aggressive behaviour in children have also been shown to be similar across a variety of cultures around the world.

Archer said it could be dangerous for any society to dismiss non-physical conflict in children as harmless.

"(Studies) have shown that indirect aggression appears to do as much harm as (physical) aggression," said Archer.

"If anything, it has to be stopped at a young age."

© Copyright  2002 The Leader-Post (Regina)