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Popular kids the target of bullying too

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Bullying is not reserved exclusively for isolated and marginalized teens. According to a study published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, popular kids are frequently targeted and may actually suffer more from a single act of social aggression.

“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,” the study’s lead author Robert Faris, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis, said in a news release.

“It’s a kind of hidden pattern of victimization that is rooted in the competition for social status,” added Faris.

This does not mean that traditional victims of bullying – those with body image issues, delayed physical development or those without any friends at all – are not picked on.

“Socially vulnerable youth are frequently tormented and this is a huge problem,” acknowledged Faris. “However, our study suggests that many victims don’t fit the stereotype.”

For the study, Faris and co-author Diane Felmlee, PhD, a professor of sociology and Penn State, analyzed data from the Context of Adolescent Substance Abuse Survey of adolescents at 19 public schools in three counties in North Carolina. The study focused on more than 4,200 middle and high school students who participated in the survey during the 2004-2005 school year.

The researchers determined students’ social status by how central they were in their school’s pecking order of popularity. They measured bullying victimization by analyzing interviews in which students were asked to list up to five schoolmates they had picked on or had been mean to, and then to name up to five schoolmates who had picked on or had been mean to them.

Study results revealed that:

  • Although findings applied to both boys and girls, popular girls were more likely to be victimized, especially if they were dating, or competing for the attention of a particular boy.
  • Girl-on-girl aggression was the most common form of bullying, followed by boy-on-boy aggression.
  • Boys picked on girls more often than girls picked on boys.
  • Teens in the middle of the school’s social hierarchy – the 50th percentile – who moved up the social ladder to the 95th percentile increased their risk of being bullied by 25 percent.
  • Kids in the top 5 percent did not appear to be the target of bullying. However, on the rare occasions when they were, the negative consequences were greater. The more popular the victims were, the more depression, anxiety, anger and social marginalization they experienced. The researchers suggested they “may feel like they have a whole lot more to lose.”

Findings showed that as kids seek to increase their social status, they increase the odds that they will be bullied by their peers, particularly if a power struggle ensues.

“Often friendship groups have one or two leaders, who make a lot of decisions about, say, whether to go shopping or watch a movie. This can be tiresome, and ambitious kids may eventually try to usurp their leaders, especially if they have overreached,” Faris told TODAY.

The effects of bullying on all teens are well documented. Faris and Felmlee hope that their study will raise awareness about the “social combat” that is taking place as students vie for popularity.

“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,” said Faris in the news release.

“To reduce bullying, it may be useful for schools to dedicate more attention and resources to deemphasizing social status hierarchies, perhaps by fostering a greater diversity of activities that promote a variety of interest-based friendships,” added Faris.

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