Belief: Girls tend to hang out in smaller, more intimate groups than boys.

Not really.   At least not by the time children reach the eighth grade, says a new Journal of Social and Personal Relationships article.

Jennifer Watling Neal, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, says her study is one of the first to look at how girls' and boys' peer networks develop across grades.   Because children's peer-group structure can promote or mitigate negative behaviors like bullying and positive behaviors like helping others, Neal said it's important for researchers to have a better picture of what these groups look like.

The reason for the convergence between the structure of youth social networks may have to do with an increased interaction with the opposite sex.   "Younger boys and girls tend to play in same-sex peer groups.  But every parent can relate to that moment when their son or daughter suddenly takes an interest, whether social or romantic, in the opposite sex."

Jennifer Watling Neal, a Michigan State University psychology professor.  Credit: MSU

The question of whether girls hang out in smaller groups than boys is controversial, with past research providing mixed results.  Neal examined peer relationships of third- through eighth-grade students at a Chicago school and found that girls in the younger grades did, indeed, tend to flock together in smaller, more intimate groups than boys.  

But that difference disappeared by the eighth grade. While the size of boys' peer groups remained relatively stable, girls' peer groups became progressively larger in later grades.   Neal said further research is needed to confirm the results by examining a single group of children over time.