Popular kids may be targeted by bullies just as often as isolated and marginalized kids, according to a new study that stands to improve the way sociologists think about the devastating phenomenon.
Dr. Diane Felmlee, co-author and professor at Pennsylvania State University, said that this counterintuitive group of victims may also suffer more from a single act of social aggression. "We did find that students who are isolated do get bullied," she explained in a press release. "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."
The results, which are published in the journal American Sociological Review, show that the only group that appears to be exempt from bullying is the top five percent of the school’s “social strata.” Felmlee and colleagues used interviews with students from 19 North Carolina schools as well as data from the Context of Adolescent Substance Abuse Study, which surveyed 4,200 high school students on verbal and physical harassment in school.
Given the stereotypical bully-victim dynamic, the findings may come as a surprise. However, they make sense when you look at bullying as a sociological tool rather than a simple form of abuse, Felmlee explains. "When youth are vying for status, they probably gain little from attacking students who are already marginalized — in fact, it might backfire," she said. "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."
The team also found that girls were more likely to be victims of both female and male bullies. Girls who dated were also at an increased risk of physical violence.
Aside from hanging with the top five percent, students also lowered their risk of falling victim to abuse by having an “aggressive friend.” According to the researchers, this observation further supports the theory of bullying as a social weapon — a tactic that helps students establish and maintain social hierarchies and identities without risking their own.
The National Bullying Prevention Center estimates that nearly one in three students report being bullied at some point — but with so many unreported cases, the number may be even higher. Victims are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties. Conversely, bullies have an elevated incidence of substance abuse, academic problems, and violence in adolescence as well as adulthood.
In the end, popular bully victims may be worse off than isolated students. "The effects of social aggression were magnified by the student's friendship status," Felmlee explained. "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.”