Most teen bullying occurs among peers climbing the social ladder

February 17, 2021

Teens who bully, harass, or otherwise victimize their peers are not always lashing out in reaction to psychological problems or unhealthy home environments, but are often using aggression strategically to climb their school's social hierarchy, a University of California, Davis, study suggests. These findings point to the reasons why most anti-bullying programs don't work and suggest possible strategies for the future.

"To the extent that this is true, we should expect them to target not vulnerable wallflowers, but their own friends, and friends-of-friends, who are more likely to be their rivals for higher rungs on the social ladder," said Robert Faris, a UC Davis researcher on bullying and author of the paper "With Friends Like These: Aggression From Amity and Equivalence." The paper was published recently in the American Journal of Sociology. Co-authors are sociologists Diane Felmlee at Pennsylvania State University and Cassie McMillan at Northeastern University.

Faris, a professor of sociology, said friends and associates with close ties to one another likely compete for positions within the same clubs, classrooms, sports and dating subgroups, which heightens the risk of conflict and aggression. This paper is the first known to show that those rivals are often their own friends.

This differs from some common theories and definitions of bullying, in which the behavior stems from an imbalance of power and is mainly directed at youths in the lower social strata in school or community environments who possibly have physical, social or psychological vulnerabilities.

The study focuses, instead, on a broader definition of peer aggression -- theorizing that aggression can actually improve the social status of the aggressor.

Using a large, longitudinal social network study of more than 3,000 eighth, ninth and 10th graders in North Carolina over the course of a single school year, the authors found that teens who were friends in the fall were more than three times as likely to bully or victimize each other in the spring of that same school year. This is not merely animosity between former friends who drifted apart: Schoolmates whose friendships ended during the year were three times as likely to bully or victimize each other in the spring, while those whose friendships continued over the school year were over four times as likely to bully those friends, researchers said.

'Frenemy effect'

This "frenemy effect" is not explained by the amount of time friends spent together, Faris explained. Additionally, "structurally equivalent" classmates -- those who are not necessarily friends, but who share many friends in common -- are also more likely to bully or otherwise victimize each other. Compared to schoolmates with no overlapping friendships, those whose friendships are perfectly overlapping are roughly three times more likely to bully each other, and those who share the same bullies or victims are more than twice as likely to bully each other.

Finally, being victimized by friends is particularly painful, and is associated with significant increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety, and significant decreases in school attachment, researchers said.

Real-life case

The paper cites the real-life case of Megan Meier, who hanged herself in 2007 after being bullied by people she thought were her friends -- with the added twist of a mother orchestrating the social media bullying scheme. "The tragedy of Megan Meier highlights more than the limitations of the criminal justice system in addressing complex, often subtle, social problems like bullying," researchers said. The case illustrates the need for research in this area: ... "contrary to the once-prevailing view of bullying as a maladjusted reaction to psychological deficiencies, emotional dysregulation, empathy deficits, or problematic home lives, [the perpetrator of the bullying] is one of millions of adolescents who has harmed a schoolmate for instrumental reasons: to exact retribution, achieve prominence, or vanquish a rival," researchers said. Indeed, the research shows, "the desire for popularity motivates much aggressive behavior."

Few anti-bullying programs work

Additionally, the researchers conclude, few anti-bullying programs work. "The reason for the typically low success rates, we believe, is that aggressive behavior accrues social rewards, and to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends. Even the most successful prevention programs are unable to alter the aggressive behavior of popular bullies, who use cruelty to gain and maintain status," the authors said. The popularity contests ubiquitous in secondary schools, the authors wrote, encourage peer bullying.

The authors suggest that efforts to support and strengthen adolescent friendships -- such as broadening extracurricular offerings and hosting camps, trainings and retreats -- could help de-emphasize popularity and reduce the "frenemy effect."
-end-
This work was supported by Pennsylvania State University and the National Science Foundation under an IGERT award DGE-1144860, Big Data Social Science.

Full paper here:
https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/712972

University of California - Davis

Related Bullying Articles from Brightsurf:

Gender, age divide in new bullying study
Students' emotional resilience is linked to their chances of being victimised, with less resilient students more likely to suffer from harassment, new research shows.

Anti-bullying PEACE program packs a punch
Italian high schools have reported success with a South Australian program to help victims of bullying and aggression.

Arts-based method to detect school bullying
Co-authors Daria Hanolainen and Elena Semenova created and tested an experimental method of graphical vignettes - a set of incomplete comic strips which kids are asked to complete using their own creative vision.

Bullying gets worse as children with autism get older
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to experience bullying than children without ASD and this bullying gets worse with age, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Does obesity increase risk of being a bullying victim, perpetrator, or both?
A new study has shown that obese adolescents are not only significantly more likely to experience bullying, but they are also more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of bullying compared to their healthy weight peers.

Study examines consequences of workplace bullying
New research reveals how frequently being the target of workplace bullying not only leads to health-related problems but can also cause victims to behave badly themselves.

Bullying linked to student's pain medication use
In a school-based survey study of all students in grades 6, 8, and 10 in Iceland, the use of pain medications was significantly higher among bullied students even when controlling for the amount of pain they felt, as well as age, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Teen girls more vulnerable to bullying than boys
Girls are more often bullied than boys and are more likely to consider, plan, or attempt suicide, according to research led by a Rutgers University-Camden nursing scholar.

Bullying among adolescents hurts both the victims and the perpetrators
About a tenth of adolescents across the globe have been the victim of psychological or physical violence from their classmates.

Bullying evolves with age and proves difficult to escape from
An international team from the Universities of Cordoba, Cambridge and Zurich conducted a study on bullying roles among peers.

Read More: Bullying News and Bullying Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.