Illustration by Zohar Lazar of girls outside school. Girls Gone Bad by Nancy Yang. Illustrations by Zohar Lazar.

in the 2004 cult classic, Mean Girls, the daughter of zoologists recently returned from Africa finds herself caught up in the treacherous social milieu of a suburban Chicago high school. To survive, 16-year-old Cady Heron must learn to navigate the Darwinian realities of the blackboard jungle. “I knew how this would be settled in the animal world, but this was the girl world,” she says. “Everything had to be sneaky.”

Thus begins a crash course in what mental-health professionals call “relational aggression,” a form of belligerent conduct meant to damage a targeted person’s relationships or social status. In the movie, Cady’s relational aggression serves as a catalyst for comedic self-discovery and transformation. In the real world, such happy endings are rare.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published this year quoted earlier findings cataloging the damage done. “Victims of bullying are more likely than those who are not bullied to report feelings of low self-esteem and isolation, to perform poorly in school, not to have a lot friends at school, have a negative view of school, experience psychosomatic problems (e.g., headache, stomachache, or sleeping problems), and to report mental health problems (depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety),” the report said.

Educators are beginning to respond. Over the past decade, thousands of schools have begun to offer programs to thwart bulling. Now, the work of three MU researchers is laying the groundwork to enhance the effectiveness of these programs.

In a new pilot program, “Growing Interpersonal Relationships through Learning and Systemic Supports,” or GIRLSS, the researchers report they’ve been able to achieve a reduction in “mean girl” behaviors such as gossiping, spreading rumors and exclusion. Perhaps not surprisingly, after their findings appeared last summer in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, there’s been, to put it mildly, a great deal of interest.

Reports of the findings went viral after the MU News Bureau sent out a release on “National Mean Girls Day” — October 3, in case you missed the meme— that included snippets of the film. More than 60 national and international news outlets picked up the report, igniting a rapid-fire reaction on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

“I was struck by how quickly the media attention came to this,” says Connie Brooks, an assistant clinical professor of health psychology at MU. “I was really excited about it, but at the same time I felt frustrated that a pilot study was being declared a ‘cure’ by some sources.” Brooks, one of the study’s co-authors, emphasizes that while the project’s results are promising, they’re just a first step.

“You don’t ever cure anything with one article or study,” agrees Melissa Maras, an assistant professor of school psychology and another co-author. “It’s going to be an entire research career — multiple people’s research careers. So much more is needed with more participants, more research and more discussion.”

Maras says friends and school counselors have asked her to send them the GIRLSS curriculum. “Although we want to help, we can’t send them the curriculum just yet,” she says. “This is just one study. We need to think of other ways that we can disseminate information about relational aggression.”

Lead author Joni Williams Splett, whose dissertation research prompted the study, is currently a post-doctoral-research fellow at the University of South Carolina. Splett also expressed concerns over how the research was characterized, noting that some of the same technologies that compounded these misrepresentations are, ironically, part of the new mean-girl weaponry.

“With today’s social media, rumors get posted on Facebook, they’re tweeted or put on Snapchat,” says Splett. “It really spreads rumors faster or gets to people who wouldn’t otherwise see it. It’s a lot of different things compared to when we were in school.” The use of video technology, in particular, has intensified the message, she says. And just as in the old game of “telephone,” that message can change each time it’s re-told.

The GIRLSS study targeted relational aggression in 12- to 15-year-old girls at two central Missouri schools. The researchers developed a 10-week “intervention” that was given to a test-group and a control-group of students. Teachers and school counselors identified eligible participants based on the Children’s Social Behavior Scale, which has been shown to reliably identify relationally aggressive behaviors demonstrated by both boys and girls.

The intervention included media-based examples to define and describe relational aggression. This set the stage for skill instruction and role-playing of cognitive behavioral strategies such as re-framing negative thoughts and positive self-talk. The researchers who led the intervention assigned journal prompts and goal-tracking after each session to help the participants think about and practice the strategies between meetings.

In addition, parents and caregivers took part in workshops and biweekly phone consultations designed to empower caregivers to affect change in the girls’ behaviors. This component of the study also served to build a partnership between parents and educators, says Splett.

At the end of the program, school counselors reported that intervention participants showed a significant decrease in relationally aggressive behaviors compared to the control group. More than half of the intervention group that had met clinical levels of relational aggression during a pretest improved significantly at post-test.

“We gave the students vignettes, and they had to report how mad they would be, how sad they would be, what they would do, and what they think the intentions of the person in the vignette were,” says Splett. These exercises allowed teachers and school counselors to gauge emotional experience, which decreased significantly in the intervention group at post-test, a positive outcome in terms of sustaining behavioral changes, she says.

At post-test, not only did the teachers and school counselors report significantly less relational aggression in the intervention group than in the control group, but the intervention group also had significantly less emotional experience. That’s important in sustaining these behavioral changes over time, she says.

“What I noticed with the girls who went through the intervention is that it made them more cognizant, more aware of how they were handling certain situations,” says Rachelle LeCure, a middle-school counselor at Southern Boone County Middle School who was involved in the study. “I think it gave them some empowerment, too, in that they didn’t have to be like this; they didn’t have to accept things as they were. It also made the girls think more about how they were treating people.”

LeCure has witnessed relationally aggressive behaviors first-hand during her 19 years as a counselor. She says that the behaviors look different than they did a few years ago.

“They’ve changed with social media,” she says. “It can get to more kids than in the past, and I think people are braver on social media. They won’t say to people’s faces what they do on social media.”

LeCure identifies “shunning” — deliberately ostracizing girls who were once part of a group — as a particularly devastating form of relational aggression. Although it’s nothing new, social media can amplify it. Posts on social media serve as constant reminders of events and friendships that an excluded girl is missing out on. A typical example, she says, is a group of girls who have chosen to shun someone going to the movies together and posting multiple images of the evening on social media.

With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, relational aggression has become a different beast all together, says Marus. The use of these media has really caught on, with younger children gradually having access to it, she says. “Eventually it got to middle school, which we know is the prime time for relational aggression.”

Connie Brooks agrees, with sentiments that harken back to Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Social media have so changed the landscape of relational aggression, she says, that researchers find themselves struggling to put a label on it. “It needs its own name because it seems so intense and personal — and permanent. Traditionally, you’d receive a mean note and you’d have some time, even if it wasn’t very long, to plot how you’d respond. Now that we have social media, it’s immediate and can escalate quickly.”

Brooks adds that the study addressed text messaging and Facebook, the prevailing social media at that time. Now that the arsenal of social media tools has expanded, future iterations of the curriculum will need to include newer platforms.

In the GIRLSS study, the researchers say they focused on isolating the principles behind relational aggression and discovering how aggressors might learn to modify their perceptions of other people’s behaviors. Brooks says there are several factors that put children at risk for becoming relationally aggressive. Some children, for instance, tend to attribute hostile intentions to benign situations, a condition known as “hostile-attribution bias.”

“Research has shown that even in an ambiguous situation, [these kids] have a heightened emotional response,” says Splett, whose dissertation research Brooks advised. “They get angrier faster. When trying to problem solve, they come up with fewer response options, so they automatically go to something without considering other options.”

The GIRLSS intervention was designed to help adolescents develop strategies for more thoughtful, measured responses, particularly at that point in their lives when hostile attribution bias commonly emerges. “If you can catch it when it’s developing, it might be easier to change it than when it becomes an established pattern,” says Splett.

Additional factors contributing to relational aggression are environmental, such as a lack of proper supervision, poor or insecure attachments to adults, or a parent’s belief that mean-girl behaviors are normal for middle-school girls.

“Part of that is true,” Splett says. “Not every girl who spreads a rumor has a need for clinical intervention. But if it becomes a patterned behavior over time, or becomes frequent or lasting a long time, then it becomes a bigger issue and could need intervention.”

Relational aggression is learned, she says, and in the absence of an appropriate response it persists. Perpetrators typically have observed others exhibiting these behaviors at home, in school or in the media. And they’ve seen that they work.

Brooks points to reality TV, in which “real housewives” and other characters routinely gossip and scheme to undermine each other. While experimentation and mimicry are normal among adolescents, problems arise when adults seem to condone these behaviors.

“It’s important for people to realize that at no point do peers overtake the family relationships,” says Splett. “The research is pretty strong there. Often during junior high and high school, parents will back off some, but they actually should be involved more. That’s when they’re probably needed most to help them navigate this new outside world.”

This was the rationale behind including parents in the GIRLSS intervention, an innovative component intended to fill a gap in the field of bullying research. According to Splett, researchers know there are risk factors at home and in parental relationships, but they rarely target them.

“I think what schools often struggle with — and health professionals often struggle with — is that you can’t address relational aggression by just focusing on individual students,” says Marus.

Neuropsychologist Brick Johnstone praised the study for its clinical relevancy. Academic researchers need to be doing more research like GIRLSS that help at-risk populations perceive the world in a healthier or more realistic way, he says. “So much of research is basically correlational,” says Johnstone, an MU professor of health psychology. “We do studies that suggest that something is related to something else, and we assign a great importance to it. It’s really nice when people do interventional studies, and they’re able to complete them, and they’re able to be successful.”

The social validity of the study — whether people using the intervention valued it and found it useful — was indeed promising, says Marus. Overall, the girls seemed to like it, and their parents more or less bought into it. “I love that this has been framed in a way that people can see that, ‘Wow, this is something that MU researchers are doing that’s relevant; it’s a part of my life,’” says Marus.

The study also demonstrated “ecological validity,” she says, meaning that interventions were designed with input from the entire school community. It’s an approach that ensured the intervention would be applicable, realistic and flexible.

“Research is all about the iterations, so continuing to test it is important, just with a different population or a larger sample,” adds Splett, who stresses the importance of evaluating models to make sure they are, in fact, testing the right factors. She says she’d also like to work with more diverse populations in the future.

“I think we learned a lot about the study, and about the parent piece in particular,” says Brooks. “I think the curriculum was conceptualized well. Involving the parents was important, but how that’s done could benefit from more focus.”

Chad Rose, an assistant professor in MU’s Department of Special Education, believes the study has already broken important new ground.

“Few studies have attempted to establish an evidence-based practice for reducing relational aggression among females,” says Rose. “Given the current nature of bullying literature, I believe we, as a field, are starting to move from a general understanding of topographies of behaviors to actually implementing interventions to support the social and emotional development of our youth. This is one such example.”

Stephen Kanne, associate professor and executive director of MU’s Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, says that he was thrilled the GIRLSS study received so much attention.

“Dr. Brooks’ research shows that there are things that happen that people need to be accountable for, whether you have special needs or not,” he says. Kanne adds that in some types of bullying, social media can be an advantage. The advent of smart phones allows users to video acts of verbal and physical aggression, engendering visceral responses that others can rally around to try and correct.

“Right now bullying is a hot research topic,” says Splett. “Schools are really looking out for it and including different practices and programs. They’re teaching strategies to prevent bullying before it happens, which is really important. But it’s unrealistic to think that we’re going to prevent it 100 percent. There’s definitely a need for intervention.”

University of Missouri

Published by the Office of Research

© 2017 The Curators of the University of Missouri