Teen movies from The Breakfast Club to Mean Girls have depicted the less than sunny side of high school life – the fact that anyone who stands out can be a target for bullying. Whether a part of the campus Queen bee’s popular retinue, the brainiac, heavy set or standing out in some other way, the odds are the teen will be bullied at some point during their high school years, some more than others.
Some might be surprised that the popular teen’s entourage is a subject for bullying like those on the school societal fringe, but a new study published in the American Sociological Review and repeated viewings of Mean Girls confirm that those climbing in social status suffer bullying too. Bullying victims in high school are not just those with physical differences or who are social misfits. The researchers show that popular students are victimized (and victimize others) too. As social status increases, aggression–both as the perpetrator and as victims–tends to go up until they reach the very top pinnacle in their school.
The researchers studied data on more than 4,000 eighth to 10th grade students at 19 North Carolina public schools. The teens were asked to name five kids who they “picked on or were mean to,” and five who did the same to them. The researchers then created a social map of the schools. The surveys and mapping was repeated again later in the same academic year.
No surprise, the kids traditionally bullied were indeed bullied. Kids who were most vulnerable, those socially isolated, had the greatest risk for getting picked on. However, they found that the teens climbing in social status increasingly came under fire from their peers, too.
In a second phase of the study, the researcher looked at the negative consequences of school bullying and aggression. They asked the students questions about depression, anger, anxiety, their feelings about the school, and where they felt they stood in the campus social network. The study found the more popular a student is, the hard they take any aggression or negativity from others. The more popular students were likely to suffer depression, anxiety and anger from a single incident of bullying than less popular students. One theory is that those traditionally perceived as vulnerable to bullying may have more experience dealing with it They might have been picked on their whole lives and may already suffer depression or a negative sense of self. However, the more popular students take their social status as a measure of success and feel that they have more to lose. Hence, bullying or aggression from other students has a greater impact on their self-esteem.
The research study asks whether the aggressors attack the weak, but showed that the highest rates of victimization is experienced by the socially strong. Those with relatively high standing in the campus hierarchy experienced the highest rates of bullying or negative treatment. High school is a jungle or as US News and World Report reporter noted an adolescent Game of Thrones, with comparable struggles over power and position. One does not have to overdose on Perks of Being a Wallflower, 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed or other movies in the genre to know that teens can be mean and it is hard to fit in. But, for those on the popular path, being bullied can actually be harder than for others.
By Dyanne Weiss