TIME mental health

When Popularity Backfires: Climbing the Social Ladder Can Lead to Bullying

Kids who gain the most status middle and high school are targets of a lesser-known pattern of aggression

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There are certain truths that we have come to accept about the social hierarchy in middle and high schools – the popular kids rule the halls, while the less conventional ones, who dress, think or act differently, are marginalized at the bottom. And indeed, studies have documented how most of the victims of bullying are those who occupy the lower rungs of the social ladder — in 2011, nearly 30% of students aged 12 years to 18 years reported being bullied, either in school or via the internet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But a new study suggests that social outcasts aren’t the only targets of bullying and aggression, and that increasing one’s social status can lead to being ostracized, teased, and threatened. “This second pattern of aggression is among kids who are relatively popular targeting their rivals, and this tends to escalate until they climb to the very top rung of the social ladder,” says Robert Faris, associate professor of sociology at the University of California Davis.

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Faris was interested in understanding bullying at a deeper level, to identify “hotspots” of conflict and aggression in school-based hierarchies. He and his colleague Diane Felmlee, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, investigated whether there were other reasons for students’ aggression toward one another, such as using it as a tool for social climbing.

Their results, published in American Sociological Review, suggest that kids get bullied not only when they don’t fit in, but also when they are simply trying to avoid being victims by moving up the social ladder. “As social status increases, the involvement in aggression–both as perpetrator and now as victims–also tends to go up until they get to the very top, when things start to reverse,” says Faris.

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To detect this phenomenon, Faris and his co-author Diane Felmlee, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, studied more than 4,200 students in eighth, ninth, and tenth grades during the 2004 to 2005 school year. In the fall, at the beginning of school year, they asked the students to record their five closest friendships. With that information, the researchers created a social map resembling a bird’s nest. Those with the shortest paths to the most students were given higher ranks on the social status scale. This exercise was repeated in the spring of the same academic year so Faris could compare changes in status against students’ reports of being victimized, which included verbal insults, physical aggression, being the target of damaging rumors, and continued and relentless harassment.

For both boys and girls who began the school year in the 50th percentile, for example, but moved to the 95th percentile, the chances that they were targeted for some type of aggression increased by 25% compared to those who remained in the 50th percentile.

The students also answered questions about their anxiety, depression, anger, attachment to the school, and how socially central they felt in the school network. Not only were the socially mobile and relatively more popular students victimized more than the socially stable teens, they were also more sensitive to the effects of bullying. They reported higher rates of anxiety, depression, and anger, and lower rates of feeling central to their social group. Faris suspects that may result from the fact that these students have invested more time and self-esteem in their social status, and feel they have more to lose if they are ostracized.

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Girls were disproportionately the target of this alternate type of bullying. The highest rates of such aggression occurred between girls, and boys were also more likely to target girls who were moving up socially than boys who were doing the same.

“One of the things we hope to call attention to is the group of people whom we don’t often think of as being bullied,” says Faris. While much of the aggression may not fit the classic definition of bullying, the verbal taunting and the ostracizing, both in the real world and online through social media, can have devastating consequences. And understanding that its victims may not always fit the commonly accepted criteria of outcasts who don’t fulfill social norms can lead to more effective ways of recognizing and even reducing bullying behavior – of all types – in schools.

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