The stereotype that popular kids don’t get bullied has been busted by a new study that found becoming more popular at school can actually increase a student’s risk of being bullied.
The study, published today in the American Sociological Review, surveyed more than 4,200 students from the 8th, 9th and 10th grades in 19 schools in North Carolina and examined how social status affects the risk of peer victimisation.
Popularity was determined by how central students were in their school’s web of friendships. Bullying, or victimisation, was measured by analysing interviews in which students nominated up to five schoolmates who picked on them or were mean to them, and up to five peers whom they picked on or were mean to.
The study found the likelihood of victimisation increased by 25% when a typical student climbed to the top 5% of the social hierarchy.
Lead author and sociologist Robert Faris, from the University of California, found traditional patterns of bullying, such as on vulnerable kids who had few friends or poor body image.
“But we also found evidence of a second, counter-intuitive pattern where relatively popular kids are being targeted,” he said.
It was only when students reached the very peak and were within the top 5% of the social hierarchy that their likelihood of being victimised dramatically decreased.
“The climb to the top of the social ladder is painful but the top rungs appear to offer a safe perch above the fray,” Dr Faris said.
Social psychologist Norman Feather, from Flinders University, South Australia, said it might be because these high-status adolescents have more power and influence with the capacity to cause harm if attacked in some way.
“They may also be seen to be entitled to and deserve their high status,” Professor Feather said.
The harder they fall
The study found that in rare cases when those at the very top do get victimised, the negative consequences are magnified.
High-status students experienced more depression, anxiety, anger and social marginalisation as result of a given incident of bullying.
The study said this could be because they had more to lose or perhaps because they were more unsuspecting victims.
Social psychologist Mark Rubin, from the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, said it was a case of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”.
“Although these highest-status children are less prone to victimisation, I wonder if they are nonetheless stressed out about the possibility of an attack on their high-status position,” he said.
Tall poppy syndrome
This research relates to tall poppy syndrome, where people of genuine merit are resented or cut down because their achievements distinguish them from their peers.
Professor Feather’s research showed that people who are low in status and self-esteem are more inclined to feel happier when tall poppies fall.
“It brings them closer to their own position,” he said.
His research found that people are more accepting of tall poppies, and of other people with higher status, it they think the higher status was earned.
“People are less happy about the fall of a tall poppy if a tall poppy deserved their high position and did not deserve a fall from grace,” he said.
But if the failure was deserved, people expressed pleasure and satisfaction at the misfortune.
Dr Rubin’s research also showed that the need to be fair and equitable may influence people’s behaviour towards others.
Out of school
These sorts of social psychological processes may not be limited to school environments.
“They are likely to occur within many social groups, including businesses, politics, even among scientists,” Dr Rubin said.
“The need for social status may be driven by a more general motive for self-esteem.
"Most of us want to feel good about ourselves, and knowing that others value us provides an important means of establishing our self-esteem.”
Professor Feather said it would be interesting to see if the results of this new American study replicate in Australia, where we emphasise equality as well as achievement.
“We need to protect the tall poppies who deserve their high status because they may do much to promote the advance of our society and culture,” he said.
A new approach to bullying
Bullying intervention programs often focus on addressing a lack in social skills in and empathy for those who are bullied. But Dr Faris said the new research showed that the competition for prestige was also a cause.
“To reduce bullying, it may be useful for schools to dedicate more attention and resources to de-emphasising 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.”