Why Are So Many 'Good' Teenage Boys Still Cruel To Girls?

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teen boy wearing headphones looks at his phone

Parents of teenagers need to know how angry many of our boys are at girls.

Of course, adolescent rage is nothing new. Teenagers have been moody as long as there have been teenagers.  

But it's important for parents of boys to understand how deeply a boy's resentment can run — something teen girls know all too painfully well — and the harm being caused.

I've heard too many harrowing stories of boys harassing the daughters of my friends, and as the mother of teen boys myself, it terrifies me. 

This is supposed to be a time of progress, but there are still boys who are cruel to the girls in their lives — even otherwise "good boys" from families with feminist values. It's time we intervene. 

Why are so many adolescent boys mean to girls?

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I think the answer to that question is incredibly complicated. It would be disigenuous for me to pretend it was simple.

But we have to try to figure it out. 

I'm not a therapist or an expert in any way. I'm just a mom of teenagers who happens to hold some expertise in gender theory, and I'm worried about the harm being done to girls — most of the time without parents ever knowing.

In fact, parents believing their boys would never hurt someone is a huge part of the problem here. No parent wants to believe their child is the aggressor, and yet every bully is somebody's child.

My best theory is that our boys are new to their more mature feelings of desire, lust and rage, and they don't know how to fully process them.

They aren't mature enough to compartmentalize their desires in a healthy way. 

They're mad they can't get what they want, which is a natural impulse for a child — even when the thing they want (the girl, or sexual experiences in general) is very adult. Add into that a dangerous "boys will be boys" culture that dismisses unkind and even threatening behavior by boys as somehow natural to masculinity. 

I think there's also a degree of frustration boys today feel when they see girls enjoying something that they, themselves, don't fully understand.

A great example of this is are the TikTok dances and lip-syncs teen girls often share, which, by nature of the format, are simple mimicry of an original viral video. They're generally fun or funny, though some are sexy or provocative.

These videos may evoke frustration, jealousy, annoyance, and probably attraction, too, in a boy. Those feelings can be overwhelming to a kid. They need guidance on how to process them.

But we aren't doing that. We are leaving these boys alone with just their friends, YouTube and social media to figure it out. 

We can't neglect this aspect of boys' development  not when it means they may harm someone else. 

Young teens don't have the lived experience yet to know that when it comes to sexual desire, most of us go around all day having our interest piqued without anything coming of it.

Most of the time it's simply because that's not how the world works; you don't get to kiss every cute person you see, or you don't cheat on your partner. Sometimes we are even flatly rejected by somebody we thought we had a chance with, and that hurts. 

We, as adults, are typically so good at this sort of compartmentalization we don't even realize we're doing it most of the time.

But this process isn't something we talk about. We expect our kids to just figure it out. 

How can our kids know how to handle crushes, desires and romantic rejection if we don't give them the skills?

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Thankfully, I think many kids today are aware of consent and bodily autonomy, and that's a necessary starting point. They need basic sexual education at age-appropriate levels throughout their lives, and they need consent education before they reach an age where they'll become sexually active with a partner.

But the problem of boys harassing girls seems to be about something more complex. It seems there's something innate about the things girls do online that arouses anger in a lot of boys.

The pattern I've observed starts when boys see girls being confident, bold, peppy, or unapologetically cute or sexy.

Their enthusiasm is often cheered on by their friends and even grownups. 

If you look at a typical teen girl's Instagram, every time she posts a pic, she has a "hype squad" of girls saying "omg ur gorg" or "beauty!" over and over again.

(This doesn't mean there aren't girls bullying other girls, there certainly are — but that's an article for another time.)

Maybe the boys are jealous, in a way. Maybe they feel there isn't any way for them to get the same sort of support.

That can be frustrating.

They may also feel angry that they don't feel as confident as all the girls around them seem to be. That probably hurts.

It's important to recognize that anything our boys feel in reaction to these scenarios is OK.

Our feelings are OK, even when they are ugly or tinged with jealousy and resentment.

It's what we do with our feelings that matters. 

To be very clear, the answer to this problem is not to keep your girls from posting cute pics or bikini selfies on social media or block them from doing TikTok dances.

The answer is to prepare our boys with the skills to handle all these big feelings, even the ugly or uncomfortable ones. 

We need to prepare our boys for being rejected and how to handle their desires in a healthy way and how to communicate online with kindness and respect.

These are life skills that they need in order to survive and be good people in the world. Taking away social media — from boys or girls — just prevents them from learning while they still have parental oversight.

Worse, telling a girl not to be cute or attractive on social media puts the blame on the girls when it's the boys causing the harm. 

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This harassment isn't new, it is simply amplified by social media.

Being a teen girl in the early 90s, as I was, meant you were never the “right” kind of girl, a sentiment I know today's teen girls can relate to.

If you didn’t hook up with anyone (but the boys wanted to hook up with you), you were called stuck-up or a prude. If you weren’t performing femininity in the way guys wanted you to, a d*ke. 

If you hooked up with too many people (or the wrong people) you were called a sl*t. If you didn’t appreciate being called these names, even as so-called jokes, you were a b*tch.

With 24/7 access to social media, our kids can’t get away from the non-stop pressures of these types of social interactions. They may even feel more intense while our kids are socially distancing and isolated. 

Moms of girls are desperate for help, and there's only so much schools can do — especially with so many students learning from home these days. 

So, what do we do?

First, parents of boys need to tell their sons that girls are suffering from the mean things being said to them.

Even the most confident girls may be crying and going to very dark places in their minds — even if they don't show that pain online.

Even a girl who keeps posting cute TikTok dances may be dealing with very heavy issues in private.

As parents, our job is to teach empathy and to bring the reality of others' suffering to our kids. We need to teach them the consequences of their choices so they can develop compassion and empathy.

Sit down and tell your kids how much others may be suffering because of this type of harassment, and that even jokes that are hurtful can be harassment and do serious damage to someone else's happiness and self-esteem.

Explain that even if they think a person doesn't care what is being said about them, other people are reading the comments and hearing their insults and being hurt. Others may feel empowered to harm people because they see mean comments online or hear degrading talk among boys. It causes them to think cruelty toward girls normal. 

Remind your boys that hurting others is never normal. 

Don't shame them and don't accuse them if they're not the ones doing it.

Just talk about what you know is happening among kids their age and how it feels to be insulted and slut-shamed (or fat-shamed or the target of racist or antisemitic insults or "jokes", etc). Explain that just because you don't see someone crying doesn't mean it's not happening.

Our kids offer us an opportunity to learn from them, too.

As much as you or I may know about what's happening online, our kids know ten times more and they often understand their peers' motivations better than we do.

Your child can see you as an ally if you team up together to help other people feel good about themselves and end bullying.

Ask them why they think it's happening and then listen with compassion.

Prepare to hear things you didn't expect, and understand that you may not have the perfect answer or solution. 

If you hear something troubling, you can lovingly point out where the faulty thinking is happening. Reaffirm the goodness you hear from them, their value, and remind them that you are always around to listen and offer advice when they need it.

Our boys are having a hard time; not just during this pandemic, but in general. They see so many things online that they don't understand.

Many boys are spending hours on YouTube or social media being influenced by people with dangerous and toxic ideologies, and they don't feel like they have anyone to process with. 

If we can show up for them with love, we not only support their growth, hopefully we can empower them to step in when they see harm being done and help end this abusive cycle of bullying and harassment.

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Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, Esquire, Vox, and more. She has a degree in gender studies from UCLA and is raising three very busy kids while working from home. Follow her on Twitter for more.

Author's note: This article expands upon a tweet thread of mine, which can be viewed here.