A Moment of Science

The Social Web Of Bullying And Popularity

Were you bullied in school? New research shows your bully may not have been far from you in social hierarchy.

Kids playing a game

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Bullies tend to push and shove to get to the top.

We all know how bullying works. The popular kids torment the social misfits, pushing them into lockers and confiscating their lunch money.

Social Hierarchies

But new research presents a more nuanced picture. Bullies are not necessarily overly aggressive, maladjusted kids looking to pick on those weaker than themselves.

Instead, both bullies and the kids they bully are often kids in the middle to upper ranges of middle and high school social hierarchies. In other words, kids tend to target their peers one step above or below them on the popularity scale in order to gain position.

Popularity Contest

This doesn’t mean that the only way to become popular in school is to be a bully.

Only about a third of kids engage in bullying behavior. But research has found links between aggression and social status. Rising up the social ladder is generally paralleled by an increase in bullying behavior with one exception.

The kids at the very top, the most popular kids in school, are less likely to be bullies–perhaps because they’ve made it to the top and no longer need to aggressively fight their way up. Or perhaps bullying behavior would signal insecurity unbecoming of the most popular kids.

Curbing Bullying

Either way, researchers see possibility in working with the most popular kids and the two thirds who don’t engage in aggressive behavior to help curb bullying.

Exactly how to deal with bullying is not clear, but understanding the complex social elements of aggressive behavior may provide some useful clues.

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