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'Social combat': Competition for social status increases bullying risk

Published: Monday, March 31 2014 10:05 p.m. MDT

Students walk in the hallways as they enter the lunch line of the cafeteria at Draper Middle School in Rotterdam, N.Y., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012.

Hans Pennink, Associated Press

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Kids trying to improve their popularity in school also increase the risk they'll be harassed by peers. The higher they climb the school social ladder, the greater the risk they'll be bullied. Once they reach the pinnacle, though, peers stop picking on them.

In a study published this week in the American Sociological Review, researchers from University of California-Davis and Pennsylvania State University find that gains in social status not only increase the likelihood of being bullied, but also magnify the severity of the consequences of being picked on.

The finding does not diminish the impact of already-recognized bullying of children who are socially vulnerable, such as those with body image problems, delayed physical development or who don't have friends. But bullying of more popular kids has not been well-recognized, and prevention programs tend to overlook it, said Robert Faris, lead author and associate professor of sociology at UC-Davis.

That type of "targeted" bullying features kids acting out against rivals. Faris said the more kids care about becoming popular, the more likely they are to engage in such behavior. He and co-author Diane Felmlee, professor of sociology at Penn State, call this sort of bullying "social combat."

"Competition for status is at the root of a lot of aggression," Faris said.

Girls are more likely to be targeted than boys. Felmlee thinks that may be because girls less often retaliate physically, so they're a slightly easier target than boys.

In schools where boys and girls do not mix socially much, students who do have multiple opposite-sex friends are less likely to be bullied.

Most kids are not bullies nor bullied, but about 30 percent experience some aspect of it. Other studies have also found bullying numbers around 25 to 30 percent.

The study design

The researchers used data from a survey of adolescents at 19 public schools in North Carolina, focusing on 4,214 eighth-, ninth- and tenth-graders surveyed in 2004-05. The aggression questions were asked at Faris' request, Felmlee said.

They calculated popularity by mapping friendships within a school. For victimization, they asked students to name up to five schoolmates who picked on them and five they picked on, ignoring teasing and focusing on serious events. They matched the aggressor and victim lists: If Y said he bullied Z and Z said he was bullied by Y, it counted. They did not use the term bullying, Felmlee said, because people have limiting ideas of what it means. Instead, they looked at degrees of aggression.

Students may say someone creates drama or has a beef, "but they don't think of it as abuse," Faris said.

"A lot of these kids don't like to think of themselves as victims, so they use different terminology. But these kinds of behaviors cause raised anxiety, depression, anger and led to social marginalization. They decrease a kid's attachment to school. It's problematic, whatever you call it."

The researchers also looked at results, such as anxiety, depression and school attachment, plotted on a scale. Anger was measured by frequency. They slotted victims in terms of social position, measured by friendships.

The findings

Those who moved up the school social ladder from the middle to the 95th percentile were apt to be victimized as they climbed. Those who made it to the top "found a safe perch," Faris said. The top 5 percent in popularity are typically not bullied. They also don't bully, he said.

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