Bullying Also Affects Popular Kids
April 1, 2014

Popular Kids Are Often Bullied As Well

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Most of us science nerds vividly remember episodes of bullying that took place throughout our childhood, but a new study has found that the popular kids are victimized by bullies too. In fact, the study, published in the American Sociological Review, found that becoming more popular actually raises the risk of getting bullied.

"Most people probably would not think that having a higher social status would increase the risk of being targeted, but with few exceptions, that's what we find," said the study author Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis. "It's kind of a hidden pattern of victimization that is rooted in the competition for social status."

The study authors warned against drawing the conclusion from their research that those who are less popular aren’t bullied.

"Socially vulnerable youth are frequently tormented and this is a huge problem," Faris said. "However, our study suggests that many victims don't fit the stereotype."

In the study, researchers interviewed more than 4,200 8th, 9th, and 10th graders who participated in the Context of Adolescent Substance Use survey during the 2004-2005 school year. A student’s level of popularity was determined by how they fit into the school's web of friendships. Bullying was determined by asking students to name up to five other students who picked on or were mean to them and up to five students whom they picked on or were mean to.

The researchers found those in the middle of the school’s social ladder — the 50th percentile — that move up to the 95th percentile have a 25 percent increase in the chance they will get bullied.

"But once students reach the very peak of the school hierarchy — above the 95th percentile — the likelihood of being victimized plummets," Faris said. "So, while the climb to the top of the social ladder can be painful, the very top rung offers a safe perch above the fray."

The UC Davis professor said these uber-popular students are less bullied because they lack sufficient rivals.

"If status were money, they would be like Bill Gates — their positions are secure," Faris said. "They don't need to torment their peers in an effort to climb up the social ladder — a tactic commonly used among those battling for position — because they are already at the top, and they aren't being victimized because they are out of reach and have no rivals."

However, when the most popular kids are bullied – the effect of the aggression appears to be magnified compared to someone further down the social ladder.

"This may be because popular students feel like they have more to lose, since they may have worked quite hard to attain their social standing," Faris said. "Another possibility is that more popular students are more unsuspecting victims than those on the periphery, and therefore react particularly strongly."

The sociology professor said he hopes the findings raises awareness that the average student, who appears to be fitting in, is often a victim of bullying.

"We hope that in addition to continuing to help socially vulnerable youth, these more central victims, hidden in plain sight, are acknowledged in the national dialogue as well," Faris said.