Scientists have confirmed an axiom
of teenage life: Kids intent on climbing the social ladder at school are more
likely to pick on their fellow students.
The finding, reported in the
American Sociological Review, lends an air of authenticity to TV shows like
Gossip Girl and the 2004 movie Mean Girls. More importantly, it may suggest
that efforts to combat bullying in schools should focus more closely on social
“By and large, status increases
aggression,” said sociologist Robert Faris of University of California-Davis,
who led the study.
Mr. Faris and a colleague studied
the relationships among 3,722 middle and high school students over the course
of an academic year and found that the teenagers’ propensity toward aggression
rose along with their social status. Aggressive behaviour peaked when students
hit the 98th percentile for popularity, suggesting that they were working hard
to claw their way to the very top.
However, those who were in the top
2 per cent of a school’s social hierarchy generally didn’t harass their fellow
students. At that point, they may have had little left to gain by being mean,
and picking on others only made them seem insecure, Mr. Faris said.
The researchers quantified this by
administering surveys to eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders in 19 schools in
North Carolina in fall 2004 and again in spring 2005. Students were asked to
name up to five best friends. They were also asked to name up to five students
they had picked on in the previous three months, and up to five students who
had picked on them.
In cases where aggression occurred,
students classified the events as physical attacks, direct verbal harassment or
indirect offenses like spreading rumours or ostracizing classmates.
The surveys also asked about the
students’ grades, participation on sports teams, dating history, race and
The results allowed Mr. Faris to
create “social maps” of each school, charting all the positive and negative
relationships among students.
At the beginning of the school
year, 40 per cent of students said they had harassed another classmate; in the
second survey in the spring, 33 per cent said they had done so. Higher social
status — defined as occupying the hub of a school’s social network rather than
the periphery — in the fall predicted higher rates of aggression in the spring.
On average, each student was
aggressive toward 0.63 fellow students at the end of the school year. A few
particularly aggressive students — socially-central athletes — harassed as many
as nine kids apiece.
Though the study reinforces popular
stereotypes about social cliques in schools, it contradicts academic notions
about aggression, Mr. Faris said.
“For a long time, there was
emphasis on seeing aggression as a product of the home environment,” he said.
“Here we’re getting a different picture.”
The findings suggest that
anti-bullying programs need to focus on the role of the nonviolent majority of
students, said UCLA psychologist Jaana Juvonen, who studies bullying in
“It’s really critical for
bystanders to speak up,” said Juvonen, who wasn’t involved in the study. “If
there’s an aggressive kid everyone bows down to, it sends a signal to the bully
that what they’re doing is working.”
Rosalind Wiseman, a 17-year
teaching veteran, said the study reflected the experience of many educators. It
was just such behaviour that prompted her to write Queen Bees and Wannabes, the
book that inspired the film Mean Girls, in which a nice and slightly nerdy girl
played by Lindsay Lohan becomes increasingly catty as her popularity soars.
“It’s always nice to have backup,”