On February 2, 2016 I was asked to be a guest on CTV Morning Live to discuss some videos that had just been uploaded to YouTube. The videos featured girls engaging in physical fighting on high school grounds during lunch. Their male peers filmed the fighting and egged them on as they did. The videos were quickly removed, but the damage had already been done. Thousands of people watched them and many, like me, were left feeling sad, angry and discouraged.

The good news (I think?) is that what we saw in these videos doesn’t represent how we typically see girls bullying each other. Physical fighting is more characteristic of the bullying we see among boys, whereas girls are more likely to use verbal abuse, eye rolls and exclusion as their MO. Would a fist fight between a few boys at lunch have made it to YouTube? I don’t think so. This has to do with gender stereotypes. In our society, unlike boys, girls are taught that physical violence isn’t an effective way of solving problems. And they’re much more skilled than boys at communicating verbally to resolve conflict.

But although the footage doesn’t represent typical bullying behavior among girls, it’s a good reminder for us as parents and educators that there’s still work to do when it comes to teaching girls (and boys) healthy assertiveness and communication skills.

What disturbed me most about these videos, though, was the behaviour of bystanders.  We did hear one person say, “C’mon you guys, why are we even watching this, let’s go.” when the girls were fighting verbally, but as soon as the physical fight started it was game on. Not one person asked for the filming to stop, and that’s a BIG problem. I did notice that one of the girls’ friends kind of pulled her away from the situation, which was good.

Videos like this perpetuate the notion that physical fights, especially between girls, are entertainment. Although it’s safe today to say that this behaviour is becoming less common among teens, these videos normalize it. Not to mention the short and long term ramifications of it being shared on social media. I also worry that because this fight drew such a huge crowd, the girls involved may have felt pressure to put on a show or prove their toughness, or get attention from the guys watching. In our world of likes and comments and follows as indicators of popularity, any kind of attention is good. But no one wins in that scenario.

One video featured a girl slapping a guy. I can only imagine our outrage if it were the other way around. A double standard is at play there, and we need to talk about it.

As always, social media provides plenty of teaching opportunities and this is no exception. I hope parents of teens who saw the videos started a conversation around some important questions:

  1. Why do people resort to physical aggression to manage conflict?
  2. What role do bystanders play in making the situation better or worse (in this case, they were part of the problem)?
  3. Why were these videos placed on YouTube? Would they have been if it were boys fighting? Why not?
  4. Why did the girl slap the guy across the face? What would happen if a guy slapped a girl across the face like that? Would our reaction be different?
  5. Are girls today resorting more to violence to manage conflict?

When it comes to teaching more effective and safe ways to manage conflict, we can encourage our teens to find a time to talk to the person without an audience.

Bring a friend for support if they need to. And practice what to say ahead of time using assertiveness skills:

  • Have a strong body (feet firmly planted, hands at side, shoulders back)
  • Use a strong voice (firm but not yelling)
  • Make eye contact
  • Use an “I” Statement (ie. It hurts my feelings when you talk spread rumours about me and I want you to stop.)

I sure wish I had these skills when I was in Grade 5, and I’m still practicing them as an adult! Conflict is a part of life but we can set our kids up for success by having open conversations, listening, asking questions and, of course, being good role models. I know, tougher than it sounds.