Whenever you think of bullying, you probably think of the captain of the high school football team shoving the class geek into a locker along with his taped-up glasses and quantum physics book. The class geek is low on the social totem pole and is used to such treatment. You probably don’t consider that the captain of the high school football team might be tormenting his star wide receiver, who is generally high up in the social rankings.
But new research is suggesting that this may be the case. Popular teens might actually be suffering more than unpopular teens.
Hey there, geeks. Don’t get too giddy. You guys are still getting picked on more than average and have significant increases in anxiety and depression. But take comfort in the fact that the popular kids are getting the same treatment.
Robert Faris of the University of California at Davis and Diane Felmlee of Penn State co-authored a study that focuses on the damage that kids inflict on each other. They looked at 4,200 North Carolina students in eighth, ninth, and tenth grade and asked them to name five children who had picked on them in the last three months. The students were questioned again come spring to see if their distress levels and their standing in the school-wide social network had changed.
Interestingly, they found something they termed “instrumental targeting,” which is defined as an attack of cruelty by one social rival against another. This means that students go out of their way to plan a “cold-blooded calculation” on their peers.
Basically, the study confirmed that the entire movie Mean Girls is actually a gritty documentary recording the real-life behaviors of teen girls. The study showed that being cruel is a way to assert one’s social standing, and that taking down someone close to you in social status can help to elevate you higher.
Seriously. Remember when Cady took down Regina? She was instantly the new Queen Bee. Everyone followed her mindlessly, because Regina had been knocked off the top of the totem pole.
Ok, according to the research, this may have been a little far-fetched. “Rarely does one expect the prom king to be thrown into a locker,” said Faris and Felmlee. But everyone else below them is still at risk for being bullied.
“Centrality in the school friendship network magnified, rather than mitigated, the adverse consequences of victimization,” Faris and Felmlee said. “For higher-status victims, unaccustomed to peer victimization, a given incident likely takes on greater meaning, for what is at risk is not only social position, but identity itself.”
Basically, the cool kids don’t know how to handle being insulted, and take it much worse than someone who gets this type of treatment on an everyday basis. For example, when Gretchen was cut off by Regina, she basically went a little crazy because she defined herself through her own popularity.
Oh, and if you didn’t catch on already, girls are much more likely to experience this sort of treatment than boys. However, having friends of the opposite sex for both boys and girls provided some social protection.
Luckily though, it doesn’t look as though we have a Mean Girls epidemic on our hands. The majority of kids do not go through these sort of attacks. Less than one-third of the students studied were victimized in the past three months, and many of these instances are just normal teen conflict.
However, the kids that do suffer bullying suffer hard. “The average incident resulted in a significant amount of distress and social marginalization, which was still present six months later, so something bad is going on here,” said Faris.
In the end, it all depends on how the victim handles the situation. Some children can brush off insults, but to others, they are devastating. But it’s good to keep in mind that stereotyping teens into a hierarchy does not promote anti-bullying habits. In order to stop bullying, schools need to offer more routes to social success and discourage personal attacks on others for social gain.
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