'Mean girls', bystanders and their victims : an investigation into relational aggression amongst girls, from a developmental perspective.
Relational, or indirect, bullying amongst girls has more recently received greater attention from researchers across the globe, in recognition of its potentially devastating psychological effects. Particularly in South Africa, with its unique history of apartheid, racial and gender inequalities and violent struggles amongst marginalized communities to be given the freedom to have a voice, the tendency of girls to „hide‟ their aggression, and to express it in covert ways needs to be understood and addressed. Additionally, in South African schools, many educators do not adequately appreciate the grim reality of girls‟ aggression as an antecedent to serious psychiatric illness. These girls are already coping with the effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is leaving many of them orphaned and raising younger siblings whilst still children themselves, thereby increasing their vulnerability to psychiatric adjustment difficulties. The present study therefore investigated the prevalence and psychological effects of relational bullying, and explored the developmental trajectory of different types of bullying amongst school-aged South African girls. The sample included 169 learners, from grade One to grade Twelve, in an independent school located in an urban area of KwaZulu-Natal. A self-report questionnaire, including direct questions and projective techniques, was utilized to collect data relating to the nature of girls‟ experiences of bullying, the psychological effects thereof, their friendships and their levels of social, cognitive and moral functioning. The current study showed a 33.5% prevalence rate of bullying victimization amongst the sample. It was hypothesized from a review of the literature that as girls grow older, and their skills in the cognitive, social and moral reasoning domains improve, friendship ties become closer and more important, and they utilize increasingly sophisticated forms of relational aggression. The research findings supported this prediction. In addition, it was found that older girls are increasingly negatively affected by girl-bullying, as reflected in a range of psychologically unhealthy reactions, which may constitute the precursors to psychiatric illness in adulthood.