“Irish whore” was just one of the names a group of New Hampshire high school students bestowed upon fellow classmate Phoebe Prince. The tormenting only stopped when Prince hanged herself in her closet in January 2010.
One year after Prince’s headline-making suicide, a new study published in the American Sociological Journal by two UC Davis sociology professors illuminates just what might be going on in the minds of bullies.
Assistant professor of sociology Robert Faris and professor of sociology Diane Felmlee found that the kids most likely to bully others were those nearing the top of the social hierarchy. The most and least popular kids were the least likely to harass their fellow classmates.
Though Faris pointed out that only about a third of the middle and high school students studied showed signs of aggression, kids may view bullying as a way to get ahead and secure a place at the top.
“There’s some degree of jockeying for social status and prestige and this is one way of doing it, though it’s not the only way,” Faris said.
Faris and Felmlee also found that the typical predictors of sociological phenomena, such as race, class and parents’ education, did not influence kids’ levels of social aggression.
“It turns out that what really matters in terms of aggression is where kids are in the social hierarchy rather than what kinds of families they come from,” Faris said.
Four thousand middle and high school students in North Carolina participated in the study, which measured popularity and levels of aggression through a series of surveys administered over three years. Students were asked to list their five best friends, up to five people who picked on them and up to five people who they themselves bullied. Those who identified as victims and aggressors were asked to describe the nature of the aggressive incidents.
The study’s findings are consistent with past research about the connections between aggression and popularity, said assistant professor of human and community development Adrienne Nishina. Bullying is a common childhood experience and causes mental and physical health problems as well as lower grades for bullying targets.
“The association between aggression and popularity seems to emerge during adolescence, when youth start spending more time with peers and placing more emphasis on social status and fitting in,” Nishina said in an e-mail interview.
Counseling and Psychological Services director Emil Rodolfa said that he believes kids use bullying to build up their own sense of self. Bullies may feel a need to control others.
“Some individuals who bully seem to believe that they are pushing other individuals down to build themselves up. They pick on people who are smaller than them to enhance their self-esteem,” Rodolfa said in an e-mail interview.
Nishina pointed out that reports about bullying, such as the tormenting Prince endured before her suicide, have increased in recent years, though it is unclear whether or not bullying has actually become more common.
There may also be a generational difference in perceptions of bullying’s severity.
“I think sometimes older adults are more surprised that popular, high status kids are mean,” Faris said. “But people who grew up on a diet of Mean Girls and related kinds of entertainment are not surprised at that.”
In today’s age of social networking and smartphones, cyberbullying prevents victims from getting a break from tormenting at school, Nishina said.
Junior history and anthropology double major Molly Dies agrees that the anonymous nature of the Internet encourages bullying that might never have happened in person.
“[Cyberbullying] is so removed from a face-to-face interaction,” Dies said. “People can do things they’d never do in real life.”
Nishina found in her own research that an ethnically diverse student body and positive school climate have shown to minimize bullying. In any case, students must be made aware of the consequences of their actions and how to effectively deal with being bullied.
“Bullies may not be aware of the extent of the psychological harm that they inflict on others. For example, they feel they are just ‘playing around,’ but their victims may not experience the teasing in that way,” Nishina said. “Because schools are unlikely to be able to completely eliminate bullying, it is also important to work with victims to develop adaptive coping strategies that can help to minimize the impact of bullying when they experience it.”
The finding that the most popular kids are among the least aggressive suggests that bullying could be reduced if those students took a leadership role, Faris said. Intervention strategies must target these and other students who don’t participate in bullying.
“They’re the ones who give the aggressive kids their status and influence and they could also potentially take it away,” Faris said.
ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.