The Norwegian study was looking at a range of different factors when it came to sexual harassment by classmates and peers, not just gender. They asked students whether their parents were divorced or unemployed, what their immigration status was, and how they identified in terms of sexuality, to see if this affected their experience of peer sexual harassment and how they reacted to it. But when the results came in, it was gender that seemed to be the most important factor.
When they asked students to rate their self-esteem, body image, depression and anxiety symptoms according to various tests, the researchers found that girls who'd endured non-physical sexual harassment were at very high risk of low scores across the board. Being an immigrant, having divorced parents, or being queer weren't as big a risk factor for serious psychological distress as simply being a girl. Boys who'd gone through the same treatment, by contrast, seemed to suffer a lot less. So what's going on?
"Part of the explanation for this gender difference may be linked to reactivity to stress such as coping styles and rumination," the researchers suggest in the paper. This refers to a popular idea that women deal with stressful events differently than men, by dwelling on negative things over and over in the brain. But that might not actually hold true; a 2013 study showed that women and men don't actually seem to have different levels of rumination.
They also point out that just because there's a link doesn't mean one necessarily causes the other. "It is possible that students who are more depressed, anxious or have low self-esteem are disproportionally targeted for sexual harassment," they explain. "Depression (and possibly anxiety or low self-esteem) may be perceived as a sign of vulnerability or exploitability in the eye of the harasser." So depressed and anxious girls may experience more non-physical harassment because they feel distressed, not the other way around.
"It is hard (or really impossible) to address the reasons for sex differences in responses," says Dr Kennair. "We can only conclude that when considering both genders, high school students report mental health symptoms due to non-physical harassment, although it would seem that girls react with more symptoms given the same increased report in sexual harassment. But obviously, we know the young women report more depressive symptoms overall."
There are limits to this study, most importantly that it only looked at teenagers from one country. Norway has been declared one of the most gender-equal countries worldwide, which shows how even in the very top ranks of gender equality, there's still a lot of insidious, unchecked harassing behavior. One of the big lessons to get out of this research, though? Leaving teens out of our understanding of harassment and its implications would be a massive mistake.