New research suggests that as students become more popular and climb the social hierarchy of middle and high school, they are at increased risk for gossip, harassment and even physical attacks from rivals competing for status.
And the adverse consequences of that bullying — including increased depression, anxiety and anger, and decreased school attachment — are magnified the more popular the victim, according to the paper published in April’s American Sociological Review.
It argues that high-status students “may have more to lose than someone who already occupies a position of relative social isolation, or perhaps (they) are more unsuspecting victims than those on the periphery, and therefore react particularly strongly.”
This type of victimization is “a distinct pattern of bullying that’s often not thought of as bullying” and consequently goes unaddressed, says Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis and study co-author.
Students not only don’t think of this interaction as bullying, they also don’t call it that, opting instead for “drama, talking s— or beef,” Faris says.
The new study is “a sequel” to research published in 2011 by Faris and co-author Diane Felmlee, a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, which found the more popular middle and high school students became, the more likely they were to be aggressive and exhibit bullying behavior. In the follow-up, the co-authors focus on who the aggressive students are targeting and with what consequence.
Both studies rely on a longitudinal survey of 4,200 students in eighth, ninth and 10th grades, conducted at 19 public schools in three counties in North Carolina.
In interviews, students were asked to name their five best friends in the school and that information was used to create complex social maps that identified students’ popularity and the social network of the schools. To create similar maps focused on victimization and aggression, students were asked to name up to five schoolmates who picked on them or were unkind to them and up to five peers whom they picked on or were mean to.
An analysis showed that among both boys and girls, if a student was is in the middle of the school social hierarchy — the 50th percentile — and moved up the social ladder to the 95th percentile, the likelihood that he or she would be victimized by his or her peers increased by more than 25%.
However, once students reached the pinnacle of the school hierarchy — the top 5% of popularity — the likelihood of being victimized plummeted. “While the climb to the top of the social ladder can be painful, the very top rung offers a safe perch above the fray,” Faris says.
“We don’t want to suggest that this is the only way that kids become more or less popular,” he adds, “but this is one way that some kids seem to climb the (social) ladder.”
The findings are in line with “what we’ve always suspected about bullying and known from some prior research, that bullies are in part motivated to gain social status and power over other people,” says Laura Bogart, a social psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital who was not involved in the study.
Schools, educators and parents may not notice the “covert victimization” of students who seemingly “have it all,” whether it’s the captain of a high profile sports team or a highly involved student with lots of friends, says Susan Swearer, professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska — Lincoln and co-director of the Bullying Research Network. She was not involved in the new study.
“But these kids, within their pairs of friendships, can be targeted as well” with significant mental health consequences, Swearer says.
Given the study’s suggestion that bullying is about a wide range of students and not just limited to certain stigmatized individuals, “anti-bullying interventions that focus on the entire school are warranted more than ever,” Bogart says.