According to a recent study, popular kids may be victims of bullying because they are popular. The authors show that bullying may be more an issue for popular kids, not just for stereotypical victims like the overweight or socially awkward.
That socially vulnerable teens were targets for bullying is well known. This new study, published in the April 2014 issue of American Sociological Review suggests that many bullying victims don’t fit the stereotype.
This counter-intuitive finding shows that bullying may be more of an issue for popular kids that once thought. As students move up the social hierarchy, from average popularity to being among the most popular, the risk of being bullied drops dramatically.
Competition for social status is one of the main drivers of bullying, according to Faris. This social status motivation may be an overlooked element in thinking why bullies act out and what do about their behavior.
Robert Faris, associate professor of sociology at University of California – Davis was the lead author of the study, published April 1 in the journal American Sociological Review.
The study used information on students’ social networks, also asking then who they picked on and including whom they picked on, and who picked on them. The data produced a complex map of students’ social connections, with popular kids at the center of dense networks of social connections. Relatively friendless kids were at the very edge of the network diagram.
The researchers analyzed data collected from more than 4200 eight- to 10th grade students at 19 public schools in North Carolina during the 2004-5 school year. Students who climbed from the middle range of popularity to the 95th percentile faced more than a 25 percent increase in the risk of being bullied.
Loners were often the targets of bullying, but kids with some social connections did not fare much better. The closer to the center of the social network, the more likely the student was to report being bullied. The risk increased steadily up to near the very top of the social pyramid. Kids ranked at the 99th percentile in popularity where victimized 25 percent as much as kids at the 94th percentile.
Faris stated that kids on top of the social order have risen above the fray. The most popular kids had become what the others wanted to be, rather than being a source of competition. Along with not being bullied, kids at or above the 95th percentile tended not to bully other kids. In spite of that bullying may still be a real issue for popular kids, if not for the most popular ones.
Naturally, some victims are targeted for the standard reasons like not fitting in, sexuality or body image issues. Social scientists call this type of bullying “normative targeting,” meaning kids pick on those who violate social norms. This type of behavior targets kids on the fringes of the school’s social networks, just because the targets are outsiders in some way.
As this instrumental targeting is being rewarded, Faris said, something needs to be done to address that form of bullying. Faris also said that kids tend not to recognize instrumental targeting as a form of bullying.
In a related 2011 study, Faris found that kids tended to become more aggressive as they moved up the social hierarchy. His new study focuses on victimization and popularity, and finds that popularity does increase the chance of being targeted by bullies.
The new study finds that bullying tends to be more emotionally harmful to a popular kid. When those students are bullied the anger, anxiety and depression seem to be more severe, the researchers reported.
This study was part of a larger study of middle- and high-school students called the Context of Adolescent Substance Use.
Faris noted that there may be a way to deal with bullying suggested by the study. Teaching kids that social rank does not matter and is not worth fighting over might reduce the incidence of instrumental bullying at least.
Bullying may be a more serious issue for popular kids that traditional thinking on bullying leads people to believe.
By Chester Davis