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Are mean girls getting meaner? Teens open up about bullying

Oct. 18, 2013 at 10:42 AM ET

Video: Bullying has become a high-profile social issue. Among the possible reasons: Many young girls nowadays believe acting mean is a path to popularity in school, and social media makes it easier than ever. NBC’s Kate Snow reports.

Even with all the talk about reining in badly behaving kids, bullying seems to have gotten worse than it’s ever been, especially with the added weapons that the Internet provides. And the suicide of a Florida girl has brought that issue front and center once again.

For 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick, the bullying got to be so unbearable that she felt suicide was her only option to escape the relentless and malevolent bullying of two classmates, one 12 and the other 14. Sedwick climbed to the top of a tower and jumped to her death.

Both of her alleged tormentors were arrested this week and the Polk County, Fla., sheriff’s strong words and the outrage over what happened have highlighted the difficulties tween and teen girls face each day all over the country.

To many, it seems that the “mean girls” have simply gotten more vicious and destructive.

In an effort to battle bullying, a group of New York area kids have begun performing in a musical with an anti-bullying message called “The New Kid.” The young performers, part of Random Farms Kids' Theater, say they understand Sedwick’s struggles, having been bullied themselves.

They talked about their experiences with NBC’s Kate Snow.

“I think that mean girls are getting meaner because with all the social media that’s going on these days it’s a lot easier for rumors to spread,” said Melody Munitz.

Amelia Rose Allen says she understands what it’s like to become the target of a mean girl.

“She would just criticize,” she said. “If I wore shorts with cowboy boots, she’d be like, ‘Oh that’s so ugly. Why would you come to school?’ And then at one point on the bus it got like physical. And then this year we decided to home school because it was enough.”

The girls say they know what motivates the bullies—meanness has become a pathway to popularity.

“I feel like most mean girls, they do it for power,” Devon Reilly explained.

Sometimes girls do it to remain part of a clique, and even if they’re not usually cruel, they say mean things to fit in.

“I feel like some people are just sucked in,” said Sienna Schofield. “Like my friend. She’s been my friend for years. And recently, in middle school she’s popular because of some of her mean friends. She’s not a mean person. But when she’s with them, she’s mean to other people. And she feels like she has to be mean.”

Parents, the girls say, just look the other way.

“Some parents don’t get the memo that . . . that you need to address this,” Reilly said. “If nobody addresses it, then it’s just gonna keep going on. And it’s just gonna continue to get worse.”

Sedwick’s mom knows all about the tragic consequences that can ensue if parents don’t fix the problem.

“The best legacy for my daughter,” she said, “is for all parents everywhere to monitor their kids and to make sure they know everything that they’re doing. That’s one thing I wish I’d stayed on top of.”

Psychiatrist Sue Varma agrees that parents need to pay close attention to what their kids are doing and to step in when necessary.

“I see a rise in bullying because of cyber bullying,” Varma said. “Social media has its effect and impact creating a permanent, public and lasting humiliation. So a lot of what parents need to do is to be able to A, monitor what’s involved and B, bolster self-esteem and confidence.”

Keep on top of what’s happening in your child’s world, Varma advised.

“Talk to them about their feelings and show them physical affection,” she said. “That [physical closeness] is key not only on an emotional level but also on a neurobiological level.”

Hugging has been shown to cause the release of a hormone called oxytocin.

“Oxytocin is one of the cuddle hormones, one of the bonding hormones,” Varma said. “But it also helps us empathize and connect with other people.”  

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