The Tricky Politics of Tween Bullying

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When talk of teen bullying comes up, younger adolescents are often left out. TV shows like Glee and advocacy projects like It Gets Better focus on the plight of bullied kids in high school — not middle school. But that misses the reality that tweens can be just as mean as teens.

Consider the numbers: An estimated half of sixth-graders are bullied in a week, and roughly four in five students report being verbally harassed in middle school. Further, in a survey by UCLA researchers, more than 70% of teens acknowledged being bullied online at least once a year. Indeed, the rate of bullying peaks when kids are 10 to 13 years old — and that’s when its effects are arguably at their worst as well. (More on Time.com: When Bullying Turns Deadly: Can It Be Stopped?)

“Relational aggression early on can be especially damaging since it tends to stick,” says Ryan E. Adams, a peer victimization expert. “Early adolescence is when you get your reputation.”

Adams’ work focuses on relational aggression, bullying that takes the form of rumor-spreading and name-calling, rather than physical blows. It involves purposeful exclusion of victimized kids and gossiping about them. Imagine tween versions of Heathers, Clueless or Mean Girls (no generation is spared). It’s not physical aggression, but it arguably causes more lasting harm.

For a recent study published in the Journal of Early Adolescence, Adams collaborated with Concordia University psychologist William Bukowski and Ph.D. student Nancy Bartlett, to study the mechanics of tween social politics and bullying. The researchers found that some tweens use bullying to gain popularity.

“Generally, kids don’t like kids who are aggressive,” says Adams, the study’s lead author. “But relational aggression seems to be much more complex and has these differential outcomes depending on who’s using it, how it’s being used and who’s being victimized.” (More on Time.com: Bullying: Suicides Highlight a Schoolyard Problem)

The researchers analyzed the peer ratings of 367 fifth- and sixth-graders for the study. In particular, they looked at how the usually negative relationship between relational aggression and peer liking held up among kids who were socially dominant (the popular kids) and those who were not (those who had ever been victimized by peers). In other words, the researchers wanted to know, when popular kids bully other kids, are the bullies more or less liked by their peers? How about when the victims of bullying express aggression themselves — are they more or less liked?

It turns out, the social standing of the bully and the victim makes a difference. The researchers found that, when a popular student bullies other kids, he or she doesn’t get stigmatized; the student is exempted from what Adams calls “the blowback typically associated with aggression.”

The same cannot be said for the victims of bullies, however. Victims who turn aggressive and bully other kids turn out to be the least liked kids in middle school. Worse, the findings suggest that no one cares when these kids are bullied.

How a kid attacks or reacts matters greatly too. An aggressive victim who’s not proficient in schoolyard politics may react to being bullied in over-the-top ways that cut further at his social standing. And when he bullies other kids himself, it’s usually not in the winsome ways of the popular kid, who knows how to get away with bad behavior. The most popular tween shrewdly uses laughter, for instance, so he doesn’t come across as too mean when gossiping. (More on Time.com: How to Bully-Proof Young Girls)

“If parents and teachers assume that peers always have negative perceptions of those who behave aggressively, [then] the present study shows that this assumption is not necessarily accurate,” says Kathryn LaFontana, an expert in peer relationships.

So what can parents and teachers do? To begin with, they should recognize what victimization is. “A lot of times with principals, teachers and even parents, they think, ‘Oh, these are just kids being kids,’” Adams says. “But much of the aggression is much more subtle. And by ignoring them, you’re reinforcing them.”

Adams says, when he used to train teachers, he would often suggest that they think of the most difficult kid they have to deal with in class. Most likely, he says, other kids don’t like that kid as well and he ends up getting the worst of it. (More on Time.com: How Not to Raise a Bully: The Early Roots of Empathy)

“They’re not likable so it might be easier for teachers to look the other way,” he says. “But reaching out to them and understanding that there’s a lot more behind that negative behavior you don’t like might help.”

And what about the popular bullies — how should they be punished? This is where things get murkier for psychologist Patricia Hawley.

“What if aggression fosters personal growth such as self-esteem and wins high regard from the social group at the same time? The fact of the matter is that effective adults use relational aggression all the time,” Hawley says. “We reward them with respect and higher salaries.”

For Adams, things aren’t so gray. He notes that, fortunately, relational aggression becomes less and less accepted after the tween years. Still, he worries that being aggressive may be confounded with being assertive, and this may send a message that there are benefits to bullying. (More on Time.com: New Laws Target Workplace Bullying)

“There may be success at work, but there are also other issues like ‘Do you feel good?’ ‘Are you anxious?’ and ‘Do you have friends?’” he says, adding, “Is relational aggression something you have to do to get ahead? I don’t think so.”

So what message would Adams tell victimized kids? Not surprisingly, it’s a familiar one: It gets better.

“These campaigns featuring celebrities give kids somebody that they trust and that they identify with, whether it’s [because they have] the same sexual orientation or they’re doing something they aspire to,” he says, noting that tweens tend to be very egocentric at this point in their lives. “It helps to have somebody say, ‘I made it.’”

More on Time.com:

When Bullying Goes Criminal

Glee Watch: Bully Pulpit

Thoughts About Anti-Bullying Laws

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