Relational aggression is a phrase coined relatively recently, sadly made necessary due to the growing influence of social media which makes it possible for people to stay in contact around the clock. This is usually considered to be a good thing; where the harm arises is when those social networking sites are used in hate campaigns against peers, especially by ‘tweens’ and teens. This type of aggression is generally unprovoked and demonstrates a readiness to battle on the part of the aggressor.
Bullying is an awful fact of life, and generally refers to physical violence or force being used by the bully against people he or she deems worthy of ‘victim’ status, for whatever reason. Relational aggression does not usually involve actual physical violence against the target, but in a way, this can be worse. Relational aggression works on destroying the target’s reputation by spreading rumours about them, saying nasty things anonymously and excluding that person from group activities. Sometimes relational aggression works in a different way, including the victim in a group or clique for the purpose of controlling them or manipulating them into behaving in a way that they would not do normally. So we can see that it can take the form of physical abuse, manipulation of the victim’s social circle or can even make use of passive aggressive behavior, whereby the aggressor erodes the victims confidence, social circle and sense of well-being without making overt gestures of aggression.
People who use relational aggression tend to do so for two reasons; one is to feel in control of the victim and to enjoy a sense of power over their life; the other is sometimes to cover up misdemeanours by aiming negative attention away from them and onto the other person – Lance Armstrong allegedly used reputational aggression to his fellow cyclists when he was at the height of his illicit activities, to ensure that they never quite got up the confidence to turn him in.
There are a higher proportion of girls who indulge in using relational aggression towards their chosen targets, usually girls that are slightly different to the aggressor’s social circle, a lower class, a new-comer to the area or even a girl who dares to date a boy from the bullies circle, invading her territory to put it bluntly. This is not to say that boys do not use relational aggression, many do, but the masculine preference tends to favour a face-to-face physical battle over a guerrilla campaign that employs stealthy tactics.
Being the target of such a campaign can be very damaging for the victim for several reasons. First of all, these campaigns tend to occur when the victim is at a vulnerable stage, going through the traumas of adolescence with his or her body changing almost daily, and not yet comfortable in the person they are going to be. A campaign of malicious rumours, cruel jokes and pranks can warp a developing conscience and can result in the victim becoming very shy and withdrawn, aggressive on their own part or even start a similar campaign against someone else.
The instigators of these campaigns are generally normal to above average intelligence, but lack empathy and compassion. They can see the distress and disruption they have caused, but do not fully understand the harm they are inflicting on their target. Trying to undo the damage caused by such a campaign can be difficult, and great care must be taken not to alienate the ring-leader who may respond to assumed criticism with an escalation of behaviour at worst or a deliberate switch to passive aggressive behavior toward their victim. This switch can disorient the victim and allow the ringleader to adopt a wounded, ‘but I did what you said’ air, while still continuing to cause suffering.
Prevention campaigns should aim to prevent a case of relational aggression from becoming a major issue, thereby side-stepping the sometimes devastating consequences. Teachers and advisors can work with those they feel to be prime candidates to help them understand the full depth of the consequences of what they may consider to be ‘harmless fun.’ Children, teenagers and young adults must be made to understand that the worst part of such a malicious campaign is that the victim cannot fight back; his or her antagonists work in secrecy and anonymity, hiding in the body of the school or work-place. The victim will often feel completely helpless, and may become paranoid, feeling that everyone is involved in the conspiracy to ruin their life. The impact of relational aggression can literally be deadly: several school children have taken their own lives under that torment of a relational aggression campaign.