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‘Mean girls’ trend points to deeper problem

Psychologists and educators warn of a disturbing trend: the eagerness of American girls to seek attention and approbation by flaunting increasingly outrageous behavior.
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Even the officer leading the police investigation admits that the video of three New York girls beating up a classmate — widely available for a time on — is hard to take.

“Every time I watch it — the second time you watch it, the third time — it’s not any easier than the first time,” Suffolk County Lt. Robert Edwards said Thursday in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Jansing. “It’s pretty traumatic and kind of graphic.”

But you need to watch it. Psychologists and educators say it points to a disturbing trend that is being left unchecked by parents and school officials: the eagerness of American girls to seek approbation by flaunting increasingly outrageous behavior.

Suffolk County police arrested three teenage girls this week and said they were the assailants seen kicking, punching and pulling the hair of a 13-year-old girl last month. Several boys could be seen watching the beating but doing nothing, and Edwards said further arrests were possible.

It is not the only recent incident in which teenage girls have drawn attention by engaging in wild or destructive behavior.

In May, four Illinois high school girls soccer players were hospitalized after a postgame brawl — as parents stood by or even, police said, joined the fight.

And in photographs posted to MySpace, a social networking Web site, cheerleaders from a Texas high school were recently seen drinking, flashing their panties and holding sex toys. Classmates described the five girls as an out-of-control elite clique who routinely broke school regulations without consequence.

‘The gender gap in ... violence is declining’
These are not random, isolated incidents, psychologists say. As mass media and the Internet send increasingly violent and misogynistic messages, young girls are finding it difficult to work out appropriate ways to win friendship and support, and they “are increasingly turning to physical violence to solve their problems and to gain social acceptance,” according to a report from the Harvard School of Public Health.

“The gender gap in serious violence is declining,” said a study by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado.

“If recent trends continue, female delinquents will occupy even more of the time and attention of researchers, policymakers, service providers, court officials, law enforcement agencies, and communities,” it added.

Federal statistics tend to bear out that assessment. From 1992 to 2003, the most recent year for which complete figures are available in the Justice Department’s Uniform Crime Report, the number of girls who were arrested on all charges increased by 6.4 percent, compared with a decline among boys of 16.4 percent. Most striking were the figures for assault: In that 11-year period, arrests of girls nationwide rose 41 percent, as opposed to a 4.3 percent rise among boys.

“We’ve been seeing this developing over the last decade or so, and it seems to be related at least in part to the change in the kinds of role models and behaviors that we’re defining as acceptable for girls or even valued in girls, with many more violent ‘super-sheroes,’ as we call them,” said Dr. Howard Spivak, director of the Tufts University Center for Children.

“It’s very much like we’ve been doing with boys for many, many decades,” Spivak, author of “Sugar and Spice and No Longer Nice: How We Can Stop Girls’ Violence,” told Jansing in an interview Thursday. “But there’s been a real qualitative change, and girls are fighting much more.”

The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence concluded that the roots of female adolescent violence are planted at home.

“The initial causes of violence are found in the early learning experiences in the family, which includes weak family bonding, and ineffective monitoring and supervision,” its report said. “The exposure to and reinforcement for violence in the home, including physical abuse, has a tremendous impact on the potential for later adolescent female violence.”

Spivak said that was why parents needed to pay more attention to how their children behaved in social situations.

“Certainly, signs often appear early on, in the form of bullying behavior, either those being victimized in bullying interactions or doing the bullying themselves,” he said. “Often when kids get involved in violence, you see changes in other elements of their lives.”

Parents of girls should watch for these signs, he said:

  • Declining performance in the classroom and at after-school jobs.
  • New friends who set off suspicions.
  • More time spent alone.

“The best thing to do is for parents to talk with their kids and find out what’s going on,” Spivak stressed, advice echoed by Harold Jones, a lawyer hired by the school district to investigate the Texas cheerleaders.

In Jones’ view, it is the adults responsible for guiding girls to adulthood who are at least as much to blame as the girls themselves.

“Kids will be kids, but adults have to be adults,” Jones wrote in his report. “Sadly, in this saga, I was struck by the reticence of many adults to accept the role of ‘being the grown-up.’”