Mean girls

Gender gap narrows in cases of serious violence

Three teenage New York girls recently beat up a 13-year-old female classmate and were proud enough of their achievement to post a video of the assault on the Internet. Local police who arrested the three girls say the video shows them kicking, punching and pulling the hair of their victim. “Every time I watch it—the second time, the third time—it’s not any easier than the first time,” commented a police lieutenant. “It’s pretty traumatic and kind of graphic.”


The New York case was not the only recent incident in which teenage girls have drawn attention for their wild and destructive behavior. Last May, four high school soccer players in Illinois were hospitalized after a post-game brawl. Five cheerleaders at a Texas high school were described by classmates as being routinely out of control. What the heck is going on?

“The gender gap in serious violence is declining,” reports a study by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado. Federal statistics back the claim. From 1992 to 2003, the number of girls arrested on all charges rose by 6.4 percent, compared with a decline among boys of 16.4 percent, according to the Justice Department. Figures for assault were even more dramatic. Arrests of girls nationwide rose 41 percent in the period, compared to a 4.3 percent rise for boys.

“We’ve seen 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-heroes,’ as we call them,” said Dr. Howard Spivak, professor of pediatrics and community health at Tufts School of Medicine, director of the Tufts University Center for Children and author of No Longer Nice: How We Can Stop Girls’ Violence. “There’s been a real qualitative change, and girls are fighting much more.”

Spivak points out that parents should watch for signs of bullying behavior in their daughters, including declining performance in the classroom, new friends who set off suspicions or more time spent alone. “The best thing to do is for parents to talk with their kids and find out what’s going on,” he said.

This story ran in the Tufts Journal in May 2007.