kid v. kid

So Most School Bullies Aren’t Targeting The Biggest Losers At School?

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.]

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  • greenmanTN

    The conclusions of this study might well be true but it doesn’t necessarily apply to LGBT students or those of other races, cultures, physical differences, etc.

    Jockeying for social position is a different phenomenon than the pack mentality against widely agreed-upon figures of scorn. If your parents or your town are racist or homophobic it may have nothing to do with popularity but with reinforcing perceived social norms or establishing membership in the dominant group.

  • Kev C

    I think the study is half right. Bashing occurs to anyone percieved as a threat, whether it’s a threat to their social status or to their world view. Gays often attract social attention but don’t fit into social norms. And many times, bullies simply pick on people as an exercise of their power, for fun, and because it’s their nature to bully people.

  • Rikard

    this perspective gives bullied kids a reason to be proud. your status is higher than your bully and they want to use you to leverage their way up the social ladder. the idea alone could keep kids from becoming a victim rather than a survivor.

  • Josh

    God, high school is just the worst place ever, isn’t it.

  • Red Meat

    @Josh: Sure was for me lol.

  • 1844

    The situation with bullying is more complex than this indicates. While those whose bullying sometimes allows them to reach the top, most bullies do not ever reach the top. There are a lot of bullies out there are never going to reach the top, and will never quit bullying. I was never in the middle, but I was bullied and spent a number of years in jr. high and high school in terror of further bullying. The bullies that I endured would never in a million years reach the top of the pack because they were too stupid to ever get anywhere. They had to compensate for their lack of status and intelligence by using their anger and frustration against others.

  • Scott

    On the one hand I think this study is a load of bunk. I was physically harassed in middle & high school and was not popular. Other kids asked me to stay away from them because I brought down their social status.

    On the other hand I was smarter than a lot of the other kids so maybe there is some truth to it. I didn’t know until I graduated that my grades ranked me 3rd in my class. #1 knew and was worried that I was going to best him. I never cared about any of that and had no idea I could be on top. The bullying gave me a very negative self image.

  • Nicky Woodhill

    Wow, this article is so full of typos: “social food change”, “weird bank geek”, “are remain the target”. I think I need to english proper to punch the someone in a face of now right time.

  • Cam

    Wow, a whole study that got it wrong.

    It reminds me of how for DECADES kids were told that bullies were really just insecure sad sacks who lashed out because they hated themselves….until several major studies finally proved that no, overall bullies had pretty high self esteem and bullied kids because they liked to.

    Go talk to the friends of any of these kids who recently killed themselves. I have a feeling that they weren’t being bullied because they were RIVALS for a position of power.

    This study is confusing actual bullying with angry teen girls that try to spread word around that they girl their ex boyfriend asked out is a slut.

  • hephaestion

    This “study” is moronic and wrong. Any gay teen can tell you that.

  • Jonathan

    @Red Meat: Likewise, but I found a way to thrive and succeed despite the awful bullies who tormented me. Screw ’em!

  • Jaroslaw

    High school is, unfortunately, never over.

    Sure people are more polished, and pretend they’ve grown up.
    But look at all the wars in the world, greed, and social behavior of people in charge of corporations, and on boards of things and political cliques, etc. We carry the same insecurities, the same desire for popularity, recognition, lust for power/control etc. that we did in high school.

  • JM

    @Cam: I suspect that there are actually two separate breeds of bully. The “social bully” described here, and the “sociopathic bully” we all know and hate from when we were in school. Those of us who were low in the pecking order likely never saw any “social” bullies; only popular kids saw (and were) them. More likely the unpopular kids (myself, for example) were the victims more “sociopathic” bullies, who fixate on a few select individuals to torment, usually for a specific reason, and often for the gratification of hurting someone. I think this study has failed to separate the two groups, and social bullying just statistically overwhelmed the more violent bullying directed against minorities and socially isolated students.

  • jak

    Just because some assistant professor publishes a study does not really prove anything. I believe the author of this article took some of his conclusions out of context and has tried to paste them onto this issue with dubious results. Bullying, as it affects gay youth, is often in the form of a group activity – an elevation of the status of a particular class at the expense of the “other”. The professor is describing jockeying for power. While there are similarities and overlaps, they are not the same thing.

  • Cam


    I think you’re absolutly right, they seem to be lumping in the “Sexting” type of bullying with the actual mental torture type.

  • MaxHedrm

    The bullied people further up in the food chain don’t get as much coverage because they have other support structures in place so the impact of bullying is diminished.

    Honestly, I doubt bullying and jockeying for social position will ever stop (people that think it will are probably not living in the real world). What needs to be focused on are these support structures.

Comments are closed.