We all know how bullying works. The popular kids torment the social misfits, pushing them into lockers and confiscating their lunch money.
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.
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.
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.
- Web of Popularity, Achieved by Bullying (The New York Times)