Why Kids Bully: Because They’re Popular

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Mean kids, mothers tell their wounded young, behave that way because they have unhappy home lives, or feel inadequate, or don’t have enough friends or because they somehow lack empathy. But a new study suggests some mean kids actually behave that way simply because they can.

Contrary to accepted ruffian-scholarship, the more popular a middle- or high-school kid becomes, the more central to the social network of the school, the more aggressive the behavior he or she engages in. At least, that was the case in North Carolina, where students from 19 middle and high schools were studied for 4.5 years by researchers at the University of California-Davis.

Authors Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee interviewed public-school kids seven times over the course of their study, starting when the students were in grades 6, 7 and 8. They asked the students to name their friends and used the data to create friendship maps. They then asked the kids who was unkind to them and whom they picked on, and mapped out the pathways of aggression. (More on The Tricky Politics of Tween Bullying)

What they found was that only one-third of the students engaged in any bullying at all — physical force, taunts or gossip-spreading — but those who were moving up the school popularity chain bullied more as they went higher. Only when kids reached the very top 2% of the school’s social hierarchy or fell into the bottom 2% did their behavior change; these kids were the least aggressive.

“Seemingly normal well-adjusted kids can be aggressive,” says Faris, whose results are published in the new issue of the American Sociological Review. “We found that status increases aggression.”

While the authors are not ruling out psychological or background influences as underlying causes of the bullying, they believe that popularity is at least as important. “It’s one of the few times I can recall in social sciences where race and family background seem to make very little difference,” says Faris. “Those demographic and socioeconomic factors don’t seem to matter as much as where the kids are in the school hierarchy.” (More on A Glimmer of Hope in a Bad-News Survey About Bullying)

Faris also found that the more kids cared about popularity, the more aggressive they were. Ironically, that’s pointless; hostile behavior did not cause rises in status. “The evidence suggests that overall aggression does not increase status,” he says. Then again, it’s not whether it works that’s important. It’s whether the kids believe it works.

Another stereotype the study jabbed at was that males and females bully differently. Boys spread gossip only marginally less often than girls did. And girls were negligibly less physically violent to each other than boys were. Gender-on-gender bullying was more prevalent among girls than boys, but boys were more likely to be hostile toward girls than the other way around.

Gender wasn’t entirely a neutral factor, however. If a girl knew a lot of boys, or a boy knew a lot of girls at a school where there wasn’t much intermingling of the sexes, those kids’ status would go up, presumably because they provided a bridge to contact with potential dates. And, yep, the “gender-bridge” kids, as the study called them, seemed to be more aggressive than others. (More on Study: Earphone-Loving Teens Can Hear Just Fine)

If bullying is actually more of a result of hierarchy than of psychology, Faris believes there might be a more effective solution than trying to change the behavior of the bullies. (Break out the Edmund Burke.) “The majority of kids who witness this, either give it tacit approval or outright encouragement,” says Faris. “Those are the ones who give these kids their status. We need to change their minds.”