You may be wondering why we’re having a gender-based discussion about cyber-bullying. Is it really all that different between the genders – and is this the same online as offline?

Understanding how girls and boys use the online space in the same and different ways helps us to form action plans that actually work – not just ones that sit on a shelf and get dusty while ticking the ‘policy’ box.

Let’s explore the world of girls online, understanding that we’re speaking broadly here about trends and patterns more often associated with girls.

Girls in the online space

Recent studies looking at the differences in girls and boys online identify that girls are 15% more likely to experience cyberbullying between 12-14 years with significant anxiety and depression reported as a result.

Online, girls tend to spend more time socialising with friends, using chats to share and comment on photos, share intimate stories and issues, seek advice on private matters and plan and organise social events. There is a greater tendency towards language-based engagement with friends – which is also true in their off-line lives.

Girls and friendships online

Understanding the friendship patterns of tween and teen girls is useful when looking at just how cyber-bullying goes down in the world of girls. Girls tend towards greater intimacy in their sharing with their peers than boys of the same age. They have high levels of personal disclosure and very involved ‘DM’s’ with friends that can extend for days – if not weeks.

Within these exchanges girls often talk deeply and intimately about themselves, explore their relationships with their parents, talk about their developing bodies and share their plans (including what they’re wearing) for upcoming events. Exploring their newly evolving sexualised feelings is common too, with discussions in the online space often taking over what used to happen late at night at sleepovers when the lights went out, and in the dark, delicious and tantalising secrets were traded.

Girls and online relational aggression

Secrets traded in the dark at sleepovers could very well be denied the next day, and with enough time, be forgotten. Even the most deep and intimate disclosure had a shelf-life limited to the interest and memory of the receiver. Of course, disclosures in the online space have no expiry date and can be used and re-used at the receiver’s discretion.

This is dangerous in the often emotionally charged friendship world of tween and teen girls, where today’s friend is tomorrow’s foe. Cyberbullying, or relational aggression in girls most often involves betrayal in the form of spreading rumours and gossip that can damage a reputation or bring shame or embarrassment. Then there are the powerful socially debasing moves of ostracising a friend, organised exclusion of a friend, telling false stories and lies and revealing secrets.

Taking a stand against girls’ cyberbullying

Cyberbullying enacted by girls is often missed because we call it other names like ‘being bitchy’ or ‘being dramatic.’ This often erodes the significance of the actual cyberbullying occurring and its impact.

Taking a stand against the cyberbullying that happens all too often in girl’s online chat groups requires a 4 part approach.

  1. Upskilling of the girl being cyberbullied to take a firm stand early. Girls often tend to shy away from confronting a friend for fear of losing the friendship (even if it’s a damaging one). Girls need to be taught how to deliver a short and sharp message to the perpetrator that they will be reported and blocked unless they stop. We also need to teach girls where and how to go and report the cyberbullying. Who are their trusted people outside their peers? How do they access the site moderator and a content moderator outside that site?
  2. Education of the perpetrator about the power of their words and actions to deliver great hurt. This needs to include a good understanding of the outcomes of cyberbullying – especially when it involves a friend delivering the blows. Girls tend to focus on the wins and the last words being delivered triumphantly right now, without always thinking about what damage their current actions are going to have long term. There’s also the consideration that actions now are part of a developing digital reputation which has a long tail into their future.
  3. Education of the acolytes – unless the cyberbullying is one-on-one, there are generally others involved. Those who are involved in the spreading, the excluding and the laughing – even if they didn’t initiate it – are the acolytes. They give the perpetrator(s) a reason to continue. Quite often, acolytes participate out of sheer relief that the cyberbullying isn’t being directed at them or as a way to gain social ascendancy. These vulnerable young people need to learn how to take responsibility for the role they’ve played and to know how to behave better next time.
  4. Education of the silent bystanders – these tweens and teens form the vast majority (thankfully) and they too need to learn their role in stopping cyberbullying from extending. Moving from the position of bystander to upstander needs a good skill base and it’s often a relief for children in this group to learn that it doesn’t mean having to stand up for someone by taking on the perpetrator (and all the inherent risks associated with that), rather, reporting early and seeking help to deal with the situation.

It’s complex

Girls and cyberbullying is a complex issue. While some level of friendship rupture and repair is necessary for learning how to manage difficult social situations, when cyberbullying happens it has its own distinct signature and level of lasting damage. So, call cyberbullying by its name. Try not to minimise it by using other stereotypical labels of girls’ friendship issues. Believe the girl who reports and take immediate action. What we do know is that girls’ cyberbullying is insidious and very damaging to long term mental health, so education is an essential part of protection.

DiGii Social is a carefully designed digital-life training platform just for tweens. It provides the opportunity to practise skills towards mastery before spending too much time on other social media platforms. DiGii Social is easy to use and available as a school subscription with a parent education channel included.