Popularity & Bullying

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Kids tend to get more aggressive as they get more popular—up to a point.


Social status and aggression. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

School bullies often seem to hang with the so-called "popular" crowd. A new study from the University of California at Davis backs this up—to a point. Sociologists Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee studied over 3,700 eighth through tenth graders, and compared their aggression to their social status.

What we found was that the kids at the very very top had aggression rates that were significantly lower than the kids just beneath them in the totem pole.

Otherwise, kids got more aggressive as they got more popular, though not the other way around. Faris suspects that the most popular kids have little to gain from bullying, and might avoid it because it makes them look insecure. He also notes that while most kids aren't actually aggressive, the bystanders could do more to stick up for the victims. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

You probably don't need a scientific study to tell you that kids who are considered "popular" are more likely to be bullies than "unpopular" kids. But while the study supports that perception in general, it does reveal an interesting exception to the rule.

One of the study's strengths is its large sample size (3,700 kids in a particular age group). In general, the larger the sample size is, the more convincing the results. The researchers say they started with a relatively simple activity: they asked the students they surveyed to write down who their friends were. Then came the more complicated part: all those lists of friends were fed into a computer, which analyzed how often each kid was mentioned as a friend by another. 

The result was a complex social web, in which each student was connected to several others, if not dozens. The more people a student was connected to, the more popular the researchers considered them to be. They then correlated each student's popularity rating with reports of intimidation and bullying that were gathered over the course of the 2004-05 school year. They were also able to track changes in the kids' popularity as time progressed.

The researchers found that on the whole, kids with more social connections were more aggressive, and furthermore, if students gained social connections, they often became more aggressive later. However, the reverse wasn't true: students that became more aggressive didn't then become more popular. That suggests that aggression is a misguided attempt to defend one's social status, rather than an effective tool for gaining popularity—even though some bullies may think otherwise.

Furthermore, they found that students at the very center of the social web were much less aggressive than the kids just outside the center. The researchers suspect that these kids aren't aggressive in part because they don't need to be: they can't get any more popular than they are. What's more, for these kids, behaving aggressively may actually be a sign of weakness, because it suggests they're insecure about their social standing. 

As you heard, becoming more popular doesn't force you to become more aggressive; in fact the vast majority of kids they studied weren't aggressive at all. However, as you know, a few bullies can make a big impact on the social atmosphere of a school. And the researchers feel the best way to hold back bullying is for more kids on the sidelines to speak up and help those who are victims of aggression. That would make aggression more socially unacceptable, and bullies wouldn't have to read this report to know that picking on kids doesn't make them more popular.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What two variables did this study correlate?
  2. How were the most popular kids different from somewhat popular kids, when it comes to bullying?
  3. Do these results match up with your own personal experience? Why or why not?
  4. Do you agree with the researchers' conclusions about how to address the problem of bullying?

You may want to check out the February 25, 2011, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: the surprising way the brain processes Braille, bilingualism staves off dementia, and new research on stuttering. Also: why being lonely could change how your immune system works, and the relationship between popularity and bullying.

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