A study of bullying at a Long Island high school reveals some fascinating things about how bullying works — and doesn't work. Turns out, it won't actually make kids more popular.
CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 commissioned the study, in which researchers mapped out the entire social network of the private Wheatley School (see diagram above, from the study) and examined kids' interactions with one another. One thing they found was that popular image of bullying — a few bullies picking on a few outcasts — isn't accurate. Rather, people at the very top and very bottom of the social hierarchy were relatively uninvolved in bullying. The middle is where shit goes down, and that middle is pretty big — write study authors Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee, "overall, the majority (56%) of students were involved in aggression or victimization, either as pure aggressors (25%), pure victims (14%), or both (17%)." That 17% figure is key — over time, Faris and Felmlee saw many kids switch roles. They write, "kids do not always fall into the stable roles of bully & victim. Instead, they seem to be sporadically pulled into conflict."
A significant portion of kids (almost 14%) thought other kids engaged in bullying behavior in order to increase their social status. But actually, this strategy doesn't work. Faris and Felmlee write that "there is no evidence that overall aggression increases subsequent status." In fact, being aggressive raises a kid's risk of being victimized later. Also, "aggression significantly decreased the likelihood of being admired by classmates."
As a whole, the study challenges the idea that bullying usually takes the form of strong kids preying on the weak. In reality, it's much more of a free-for-all, with bullies and victims switching places and a majority of kids involved in some way. Also, being aggressive isn't a tool kids can use to climb the social ladder, even if they may think it is. Instead, it can actually harm their social status. This suggests a potential strategy for anti-bullying programs — if kids can be encouraged to recognize that being jerks doesn't actually make people like them, maybe they'll be a little nicer.