The ugly side of female friendships



“Friendship bullying” is rife amongst female high school students according to research from The University of Auckland. Dr Ro Lange, a school counsellor at an Auckland high school, has completed a doctoral thesis within the Faculty of Education which looked at friendship bullying.

She has discovered that teenage girls are just as likely to be bullied by their friends as they are by their so-called foes. Part of the reason why the bullying happens, Ro thinks, is due to developmental changes.

Ro’s research findings are based on a study of Year 10 females aged about 14. The study had three parts: small focus groups; an anonymous survey of 1300 students from six Auckland state high schools; and in-depth interviews with girls who had experienced bullying or who had witnessed bullying. “I was trying to get a picture of the bullying that happens among girls but looking at it from the point of view of friendships, not bullying from their enemies,” Ro explains.

According to her research bullying is common amongst friendship groups. Forty-four per cent of girls surveyed believed they had been bullied by friends and more than 85 per cent said they had experienced at least one type of bullying, in terms of definitions of bullying based on previous research, such as being ignored or excluded.

One of her key findings was while the majority of bullying occurred in friendship groups, girls often failed to recognise or name it as bullying because the behaviour came from their friends.

“They (girls) don’t in fact bully as much as boys according to some experts but if they do choose to bully, it’s a kind of bullying that uses the relationship as a weapon and exercises emotional pressure.\”

Ro’s research identified two distinct types of friendship bullying: group bullying and triadic group bullying. Group bullying is when “the group” decides to ostracise one of their members. “She has done something to perhaps offend the group or for whatever reason one day she is in, one day she is out.”

Triadic group bullying is a “three’s a crowd scenario.” Ro explains this is where there are best friends in a pair and a third person befriends the duo. “There is this awful tug of war, and that could go on for months sometimes. It just devastates the people involved.”

Her findings suggest that the developmental changes in girls, which create increased friendship conflict, may also contribute to increased levels of bullying as girls learn to manage more highly-developed friendships.

Ro says when students were asked in the survey why they thought the bullying happened they tended to blame it on the bully. “The bully is seen as angry with the other person, perhaps to do with issues relating to friends or boys.”

But when interviewed one-on-one the students were more self-reflective. They said the bullying happened because “we change” which, Ro says, fits with the fact that the developmental changes going on are enormous.

“There are psycho-social changes and the teens are learning to define themselves. In those early teen years it is almost as though your identity is the peer group. You just want to be like everyone else and then there is a gradual separating out, not a rejection of the peer group but a sense that you are an individual. It becomes more about my friend as a person and their personal qualities, not just as someone to do stuff with.”

Her study also sought to discover what girls themselves had found helpful in reducing or preventing friendship bullying. There was “no magic wand solution” but talking to their mother or to a friend outside the situation or getting involved with sport or another activity helped.

Ro’s doctoral research was supervised by Associate Professor Robyn Dixon from the School of Nursing at The University of Auckland and Senior Lecturer Margaret Agee from the Faculty of Education’s School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work.

Dr Agee says Ro’s research is important because it reveals the complexities of girls’ friendship dynamics and the bullying that occurs within that context. “It raises awareness of a form of bullying that is often trivialised, yet can have significant effects on the girls involved, including those who witness it.”