How Popularity Increases the Risk of Bullying

Discover why popular kids are just as likely to be bullied as loners


It used to be that people assumed that kids who were different or loners were at the greatest risk for being bullied. But new research suggests that as students become more popular and climb the social ladder they are at an increased risk for bullying.

In fact, they may become victims of gossip and rumors, cyberbullying, name-calling and even physical bullying. This does not mean that the more stereotypical bullying victims are not targeted.

Instead, what the authors of the study want to stress is that victims of bullying are not all the same. While it is true kids may be targeted for being different, the popular kids and the athletes are also at risk. In fact, bullying in sports and among popular groups is very common.

In fact, these kids may in fact be victimized far more than teachers and parents realize. And the consequences they suffer, including anxiety, depression and even thoughts of suicide may be more significant than other types of victims as well.

According to paper published in the American Sociological Review, students who are high on the social ladder feel like they "have more to lose” than students who are loners. They also may be more unsuspecting of bullying such as relational aggression and cyberbullying than students who struggle socially. In fact, they may not  even consider what they are experiencing bullying.

Instead, they refer to it as “drama” or indicate that people are “messing with them" or "trying to ruin their life."

The study, titled “Casualties of Social Combat: School Networks of Peer Victimization and Their Consequences,” relies on data from the Context of Adolescent Substance Use survey of adolescents at 19 public schools in North Carolina.

In the study, Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis and his co-author Diane Felmlee, a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, focus on the social lives of more than 4,200 students.

And an analysis of the data illustrated that if a student was moderately popular and moved up the social ladder to the 95th percentile of popularity, the likelihood that she would be victimized by her peers increased by more than 25 %. That is a significant jump in risk factors.

What this information means for teachers and parents, is that students do not necessarily have to have to fit a mold to be bullying victims. Consequently, as school bullying prevention programs are developed, administrators need to consider this research. Sometimes the root cause of bullying is more about popularity than it is about being cruel.

Likewise, the best bullying prevention programs not only address character education, empathy and acceptance of others, but they also address the pitfalls of popularity and cliques.

By stressing the importance of being authentic, unique and a good friend, educators and student leaders can demonstrate that these factors are much more desirable than sheer popularity. The goal of any program should be to reduce the students’ drive to become popular and refocus their energy on becoming a good citizen.

Faris hopes that in addition to helping socially vulnerable youth, these potential victims, often hidden in plain sight, are included in programs as well. "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 friendship groups and not celebrating one activity — such as basketball or football — over any other," he says. 

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