In the movie “Mean Girls,” head plastic Regina George tortures her North Shore High classmates of all stripes, including her supposed best friends. At Springfield Elementary, where Bart Simpson goes to school, Nelson Muntz, the oversized dimwit with the distinctive laugh, is the cartoon series’ bully.
A new study suggests that, in reality, neither of those students would be the aggressors on campus.
Robert W. Faris, an assistant sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, spent several years surveying students at middle and high schools in rural and suburban North Carolina. The results of his research are published in this month’s edition of the American Sociological Review.
He found that students in the middle of the social hierarchies at their schools, rather than the most popular or the most socially outcast, are more likely to be bullies.
“I think there’s kind of a simple explanation: These kids view aggression as one tactic for gaining or maintaining their social status,” Mr. Faris said. “This is not the only way that kids climb socially. There are a lot of other ways—much more effective ways: being good in sports, being pretty, being rich, if you’re funny, if you’re nice.”
Mr. Faris and UC-Davis colleague Diane Felmlee mapped social networks, based on students’ responses to surveys about who their friends were and whether those students listed them in turn, allowing the researchers to discern which students were at the center of a particular school’s social web.
Then they asked which classmates treated them aggressively, discounting playful teasing.
The surveys showed that the students from whom the spokes of school popularity emanated were less likely to harass classmates verbally, spread rumors, engage in cyber-bullying, or use physical violence against their peers.
“Our interpretation is, kids view this as a means to an end. Once they get to the top, they no longer need to be aggressive. Aggression could be counterproductive: It could signal insecurity,” Mr. Faris said.
But, he added, “there are definitely some kids who were socially marginal and highly aggressive. There’s always going to be exceptions.”
In schools, he said, physical violence is relatively easy to spot. But the more subtle aggression, which he found to be more common, can leave deeper wounds and be far more difficult to detect. (“Researchers Look for Ways to Curb ‘Mean Girls’ and Gossip,” Feb. 2, 2011.)
And while physical violence might be a concrete reason for punishment, schools are still grappling with consequences for verbal and social aggression. Undetected, the effects can be disastrous.
“In my dissertation, I found that victimization was the strongest predictor of subsequent feelings of suicide and depression,” he said. “It’s easier to understand the physical violence. It’s harder to figure out the manipulation and the gossip. They’re all damaging, but it’s certainly possible that the social engineering is more painful.”
The researchers, whose longitudinal study followed 3,722 students from 2002 through 2005, found that regardless of their backgrounds, race or ethnicity, or grade levels, the patterns of aggressors’ place in the social spectrum were the same.
“Traditionally, sociologists find these socioeconomic and demographic factors are the strongest predictors” of social behavior, Mr. Faris said. “This is an exception.”
Mr. Faris said he also found that girls are likely to be the victims of physical or social aggression, which he will elaborate on in a forthcoming study.
“Girls are more aggressive to girls than they are to boys, and [it’s] greater than boys are to boys,” he said. And “boys are more aggressive to girls than girls are to boys. Boys and girls are targeting girls at a higher rate.”
Born of Experience
He said the research was sparked, in part, by his own experiences as the victim of aggression.
“I’ve always had an interest in general terms in the relationship between power and violence. On a more personal level, in 4th grade, I used to come home with a bloody nose almost every day,” he said.
Two older students sought out the future sociologist, regardless of whether he changed bus stops or went out of his way to avoid them, looking to beat him up. He never knew why he was their frequent target. “I remember it being kind of a mystery.”
Mr. Faris and Ms. Felmlee’s findings jibe with what bullying-prevention and -support groups have found: Old stereotypes of school bullies are dangerous in the modern world.
J. Marlene Snyder, the director of development for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, said her organization’s training makes clear that school employees shouldn’t have preconceived ideas about who might be aggressive at school.
“We are very careful to teach our teachers that anyone can play any role. It’s what group you’re with and what the situation is,” she said.
The Olweus approach is used in more than 7,000 schools nationwide and is named after a Norwegian researcher who began studying bullying behavior in his country more than 40 years ago. In the United States, Ms. Snyder and the Olweus program are based at Clemson University in South Carolina.“We have been very careful in our training not to spend too much time on who might be the aggressor or who might be the child who is being victimized,” Ms. Snyder said.
“Some of the early stuff [in bullying prevention] talked about personal characteristics,” she continued. “You can be pretty. You can be smart—anything that is different from the group—that someone in the group decides is not OK.’’
And from one moment to the next, one scenario to another, Ms. Snyder said students’ roles as aggressor and target may reverse.
“We do not use the terms ‘bully’ and ‘victim’. We’re trying to get people to understand that this is a very complex issue and not to just constantly saddle one child with one label,” she said. “That’s not helpful.”
At schools in Allegheny County, which surrounds Pittsburgh, Jim A. Bozigar employs the Olweus approach to combat aggression, whether the behavior is triggered by a desire for popularity or by teenage sexuality—the latter of which he noted that Mr. Faris’ research did not directly address.
His work is supported by the Highmark Healthy High 5, a five-year, $100 million initiative of the Highmark Foundation in Pittsburgh to promote lifelong healthy behaviors in children and adolescents.
“If a child has any feature that can make them look or appear exceptional, that can make them a target,” Mr. Bozigar said.
“The thing that we try to do is change the culture [of the school],” he continued. “You have to empower the adults to empower students. They are the front line. They are the ones that are going to make the program succeed.”
What happened in the North Carolina schools Mr. Faris studied is also what Leigh Anne Kraemer, of The Ophelia Project, in Erie, Pa., has observed. The Ophelia Project is a nonprofit organization that works with youths and adults affected by relational and other nonphysical forms of aggression.
“It’s a myth that it’s just the popular kids that bully. It’s not the rich kids picking on the poor kids or the bigger ones picking on the little ones,” said Ms. Kraemer, the group’s education specialist. “If you’re looking to gain power and status by pushing others down, that’s where we really see a problem.”
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study Punctures Stereotypes About Social Status of Bullies