Bullying affects more than just isolated and marginalized students, a new study shows. In fact, relatively popular students may be targeted and may actually suffer more from a single act of social aggression.
A study of students and their friendship networks in 19 North Carolina schools shows that the risk of being bullied drops dramatically only for adolescents in the top five percent of the school’s social strata.
“We did find that students who are isolated do get bullied,” says Diane Felmlee, professor of sociology at Penn State. “However, for most students, the likelihood of being targeted by aggressive acts increases as a student becomes more popular, with the exception of those at the very top.”
Bullying may be a tactical form of aggression, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of American Sociological Review. Young people who are attempting to climb in status may increase their risk of victimization.
“When youth are vying for status, they probably gain little from attacking students who are already marginalized—in fact, it might backfire,” says Felmlee, who worked with Robert Faris, associate professor at University of California, Davis.
“But, if adolescents put down someone who is trying to be a leader in their group, or who constitutes a threat to their status, then there is a lot more to be gained.”
Girls are more likely to be victims of both male and female bullies. Further, girls who date are at increased risk of physical violence.
“Girls may pose particular threats to other female students’ social standing and represent potential rivals when it comes to securing a boyfriend,” Felmlee says. “For boys, girls who date represent rewarding, often popular and relatively easy targets who are unlikely to retaliate physically.”
Students who have an aggressive friend tend to avoid being victimized. This may be further evidence that bullying is rarely an individual act, but associated with how friends establish and maintain hierarchies by protecting their own.
There are serious costs associated with bullying over time, Felmlee says. Victims suffer elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and anger—and tend to develop negative feelings about their schools, as well.
Farther to Fall
Bullying’s detrimental effects can be even more pronounced among relatively popular students, researchers say. Higher-status students experience significantly larger increases in depression, anxiety, and anger than low-status students. The friendships of these students also deteriorated.
“The effects of social aggression were magnified by the student’s friendship status,” Felmlee says. “It may be that the kids who are extremely popular and rarely victimized had farther to fall than those more accustomed to being a target, so, although socially vulnerable youth suffer significantly from frequent harassment, more central victims of bullying, those who may be ‘hidden in plain sight’ face serious consequences.”
For the study, researchers examined data from the Context of Adolescent Substance Use study, which surveyed about 4,200 middle and high school students twice during the school year. The surveys included questions on serious verbal and physical harassment, but did not include minor incidents, such as playful teasing.
The students were asked to provide information about their friendships, as well as information about students whom they believe they harassed and about those who they believe harassed them.