Bullying is all about power. This much we know. Expressing it. Commanding it. Exercising it. But why, parents and victims and administrators wonder, do bullies go after other kids? To achieve certain levels of status, claims new research published this month in The American Sociological Review. Which means that when it comes to choosing victims, bullies more often are selecting higher-profile targets — rivals — rather than already-marginalized kids. Their goal, apparently, is to move up in the world, and only by going after respected kids can they get what they want.
Highly publicized cases of bullying typically involve chronic harassment of socially isolated students, but the latest studies suggest that various forms of teenage aggression and victimization occur throughout the social ranks as students jockey to improve their status. The findings contradict the notion of the school bully as maladjusted or aggressive by nature. Instead, the authors argue that when it comes to mean behavior, the role of individual traits is “overstated,” and much of it comes down to concern about status. “Most victimization is occurring in the middle to upper ranges of status,” said the study’s author, Robert Faris, an assistant professor of sociology at U.C. Davis. “What we think often is going on is that this is part of the way kids strive for status. Rather than going after the kids on the margins, they might be targeting kids who are rivals.”
Meanwhile, other research shows that bullies themselves are often at the top of the social food change. And once they get to the top, the behavior stops. It also debunks the notion that kids existing on the lower rungs of status are the most likely bully targets, because going after them yields fewer results for the bully. That is, the bully is already above the weird bank geek, and needs to challenge somebody above his or her current rank to get higher, like a respected jock.
In a series of studies, some still awaiting publication, the U.C. Davis researchers asked 3,722 eighth to 10th graders in three counties in North Carolina to name their five best friends. Then the students were asked whether they had ever been a target of aggressive behavior by their peers — including physical violence, verbal abuse and harassment, rumors and gossip, or ostracism — and whether they had engaged in such behavior themselves.
The researchers used the data to construct complex social maps of the schools, tracking groups of friends and identifying the students who were consistently at the hub of social life. “It’s not simply the number of friends the kid has, it’s who their friends are,” Dr. Faris said. “The kids we’re talking about are right in the middle of things.” Using the maps, the researchers tracked the students most often accused of aggressive behavior. They found that increases in social status were associated with subsequent increases in aggression. But notably, aggressive behavior peaked at the 98th percentile of popularity and then dropped.
“At the very top you start to see a reversal — the kids in the top 2 percent are less likely to be aggressive,” Dr. Faris said. “The interpretation I favor is that they no longer need to be aggressive because they’re at the top, and further aggression could be counterproductive, signaling insecurity with their social position. “It’s possible that they’re incredibly friendly and everybody loves them and they were never mean, but I’m not so convinced by that, because there are so many kids right behind them in the hierarchy who are highly aggressive.”
None of which should de-emphasize the very real problem that lower-status kids — gay or otherwise — are remain the target of some bullies. There’s a reason these kids have already been pushed to the bottom by their peers. Their other-ness and nonconformity, usually. Which means we still have a group of kids who feel less than and, if this research is correct, might themselves turn to bullying to ascend the social ladder.
Which isn’t good for anyone.
[Ed: Yes, I’m well aware the word “loser” appears in the headline, and it’s a not-so-nice way to refer to young people at the bottom of the pecking order. It is, however, how bullies view these kids.]