The teens, researchers say, believe that antagonizing their peers will increase their social status. Thus, those teens with high social status, but not the highest, are the most likely to engage in intimidation through bullying.
“Status increases aggression,” said lead study author Robert Faris, an assistant professor of sociology at University of California, Davis. “For a long time, people perceived aggression as a maladjusted reaction to problems at home or mental health issues, but our research is consistent with the idea it’s a nasty underbelly to social hierarchies. Aggression is perceived to be a way of getting ahead.”
Bullying levels peaked among teens who fit into 98th percentile of popularity. However, once teens reached the top 2 percentiles of popularity, bullying levels fell drastically.
Researchers theorize that the most popular kids in school generally do not bully others because they no longer have any need to get ahead. In fact, once at the top of the social pecking order, continuing to bully others may be seen as insecurity in one’s social position, which could actually lead to a decrease in popularity.
Bullying is also rare among the least popular students, presumably because they have no power to do so.
Researchers also observed a large “silent majority” – 67 percent of teens were not aggressive or mean toward anyone, but generally acted as tacit observers to the 33 percent who were.
However, multiple bullies might target the same person. Researchers saw that one person could have as many as 17 different aggressors.
The dangers of bullying has come to light in recent years with news stories about bullied students committing suicide or being killed in aggressive acts that were taken too far. Every day, an average of 160,000 U.S. students skip school because of bullying.
The study was published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review.