In anecdotal tales of schoolyard bullying, young girls spread rumours and alienate their victims, while boys push and shove.
But new research is challenging these cliches, which experts say are shaped by gender stereotypes rather than evidence.
The preliminary findings of a study conducted in Sydney high schools suggests female students are more likely to engage in social and relational aggression – rumour spreading and manipulation – in the junior years. But, by years 9 and 10, the boys overtake them.
The researcher Katrina Newey, a developmental psychologist and PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney, also found male students were more commonly the perpetrators of cyberbullying, particularly when it comes to hacking social media accounts or spreading embarrassing videos and photos online.
The research follows the recent publication of a major longitudinal study from the University of Georgia in the US that found boys were more likely to indulge in rumour spreading and social exclusion than girls.
Jennifer Germon, a gender studies academic at The University of Sydney, says there is mounting evidence to debunk the myth that boys use their fists as weapons and girls use words.
“It seems very clear to me that, when boys bully, social exclusion, gossiping and name-calling are crucial to their arsenal,” she says. “It’s really a misnomer to just attribute the language-based forms of bullying to girls.”
Dr Germon says ignoring the nuances of anti-social behaviour means interventions risk overlooking crucial aspects of bullying, particularly among boys.
“Those old arguments just don’t hold,” she says. “They’re counterproductive and they get in the way of effective interventions.”
Helen McGrath, from Deakin University, is a psychologist and leading education academic in the area of bullying.
She says myths around the ways boys and girls bully emerged to fill a research vacuum.
“There was a lack of good research in this area, so people made the assumption that it was more consistent with socialisation for girls to use rumours and social exclusion and for boys to use direct aggression,” she says.
Professor McGrath says while studies suggest there may be some differences, they are not as great as once thought. She says girls might focus more on subtle ways of excluding their peers, while boys have been shown to prefer direct attacks.
The Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study published in 2009, for example, found girls were more likely than boys to bully in covert ways, with the behaviour beginning as early as year 3.
Girls were also more likely to have been sent mean messages over the internet, while boys in junior high school were more afraid that they would be physically hurt by bullies.