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

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

Being bullied seems to spread through social circles. When one friend is bullied, another is more likely to be, as well. Girls were bullied significantly more and were also more anxious and depressed, less happy with their appearance and less attached to school, compared to boys. But they were also less angry, more likely to be involved in school social networks and less likely to be loners.

Victims and aggressors are often close status rivals, Felmlee said. A girl may be a rival for a place in a social club or for a boyfriend. Boys are more likely to be physical, while girls are more apt to gossip or ostracize.

The more popular a bullying victim is, the more the bullying results in anger, depression, anxiety and social marginalization, the study found.

Faris said that may be the result of feeling like they have more to lose, since achieving social standing was hard work. It could also be that they don't expect it, so it hurts more. It's also likely, he added, that kids harassed their whole lives have lived with more depression and anxiety, but they may find aggression slows down in high school. "They end up ignored, I think," he said.

Reactions vary. Kids who are socially isolated feel more anxiety and depression when they're victimized, but they are not more angry or less attached to school than their classmates. Adolescents who are unhappy with their looks were more anxious and depressed, but not more angry or isolated. They were more attached to school. Those who lag in development are more angry, but also more attached to school and less depressed.

In background information, researchers reported similar findings among students at an elite public high school in New York. They believe the findings would be quite universal in schools.

Some people think there's no harm in aggression toward popular kids. That's not true, Felmlee said. "We find that the consequences are costly for those kids as well and some bullying prevention programs may overlook them. For some who have never been bullied before, it's a huge deal."

Faris said bullying-prevention programs often single out bullying of students who are more stereotypical subjects. Those who want to impact bullying may want to consider "status competition," too.

"Until we have programs and policies that take into consideration that kids are being rewarded for this, that it's socially useful for them, we are probably not going to make a whole lot of headway," he said. "There are different causes of bullying and this is just one, but it has been neglected."

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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