Cool Teens Bully Their Way to the Top, Study Shows

Filed under: In The News, Bullying, Research Reveals: Teens

bullying picture

It's the popular kids who do the most bullying, a new study finds. Credit: Corbis

If your teen aspires to hang out with the popular crowd, being deceitful, scheming and tormenting her peers may help make her cool. Once she's queen bee, though, she'll start playing nice.

A new study throws out the misconception that it's the troubled, dorky types who are doing the bullying. Teens trying to claw their way into cool crowd are the ones employing nastiness in the pursuit of popularity -- unless they're already at the top of the heap. In that case, they're more likely to give their peers a break, according to the study by University of California Davis researchers, published in the American Sociological Review.

Just like the movie "Mean Girls," the study confirms the psychological warfare and unwritten social rules teens already know well: Popular kids can be vicious.

"By and large, status increases aggression, until you get to the very top," the study's lead author, UC Davis sociologist Robert Faris, tells the Los Angeles Times. "When kids become more popular, later on they become more aggressive."

The researchers asked boys and girls in three North Carolina counties to list their five best friends, five people they had picked on (physically, verbally or indirectly through ostracism and the like), five people who had picked on them and a variety of other questions about socioeconomic background, dating habits and so on, the Times reports.

They found those students in the top 2 percent of the school social hierarchy -- along with those at the bottom -- are the least aggressive.

The more connected a student was, the more likely he or she was to engage in hostile acts, suggesting that students see aggression as key to attaining and maintaining status.

As to why the most popular kids were less aggressive, Faris says the kings and queens of the hill simply have nothing to gain by lashing out. Striving with claws bared just makes them look insecure and weak.

Bottom line: Bullying is not a solo activity.

"Aggression usually requires some degree of social support, power or influence," Faris says in the study. "If an adolescent at the top of the social hierarchy were to act aggressively towards his or her peers, such action could signal insecurity or weakness rather than cement the student's position. And, it's possible that, at the highest level, they may receive more benefits from being pro-social and kind."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.