You can see them on YouTube videos and at local schools in many American communities: Girls pulling each other's hair and exchanging punches. When the fights really get out of hand or girls turn to violent crime, the stories make headlines in local newspapers, according to Boston city officials who told the Boston Globe that girls in some neighborhoods list violence perpetrated by other girls as a key problem.
"This is an issue. We are trying to get our arms around it," Marie St. Fleur, a top aide for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, told the Globe. She is leading a campaign in Massachusetts that will combine positive messages on billboards, posters and social media, town hall meetings and other efforts to curb girl violence.
"Local ministers and youth advocates say some girls have been fueling gang feuds and staging fights that are posted on YouTube and Facebook," wrote the Globe's Meghan E. Irons. And while Boston-area law enforcement statistics indicate violent crimes by females 13 to 24 have fallen some, "officials and advocates who work with girls say that on the street, they are hearing a different message," the article said.
There's debate about the trend, and most data show it has remained relatively flat, but experts all agree the number of cases of violent crime perpetrated by girls is too high. It's certainly not a Boston-area phenomenon. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that about one-fourth of violent episodes among youths is perpetrated by girls, up from 1 in 10 a generation ago.
A survey of 33,000 girls ages 12 to 17 comparing two time periods in the last decade found that 26.7 percent had been in a serious fight at school or work, a group-against-group fight or had attacked someone with the intent to hurt someone in the past year, according to a 2010 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
"Rates of violent behavior were higher for those who engaged in binge drinking or used marijuana. Also, rates were higher among families with low income and for adolescents who were not attending school. For those in school, violence was more common among those with poorer grades," said an Associated Press article on the data, which had been collected as part of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
"In the public mind, acts of teenage violence are most commonly associated with boys," the NSDUH report observed, but "it is clear that the problem is pervasive among girls as well."
The report said that it was unclear whether the numbers indicated a change in the level and amount of violence committed by girls, or whether it was more indicative of changing attitudes about it within law enforcement.
A well-publicized study from the University of Cambridge released in 2010 suggested that "the brains of people with antisocial behaviour may work differently from those who behave normally." When Science Daily reported on that study, it said that when girls with a tendency to be violent were shown the six primary facial expressions, they had trouble recognizing anger or disgust. They readily recognized sadness, fear, surprise and happiness. What it means is fodder for more study, the researchers said.
Barry Plummer, a clinical child psychologist, recently told WPRI in Newport, R.I., that he believes girls really are more violent than they were 10 years ago. He blames social media sites for some of the increase.
"Girls get exposed to all sorts of violent things, but the social media and the ability to transmit that rapidly, I think that's accelerated what girls are exposed to. They're exposed to what each other thinks more quickly and with Facebook and texting and other kinds of things you can respond to it," he said.
Plummer was asked about girl violence after an incident in which four girls, two of them 12 and two of them 13, were charged with a videotaped attack on another 12-year-old girl. The video had been posted on YouTube.