By Emily Reynolds
We already know that bullying can be one way of climbing the social ladder for teenagers. For example, a study published in 2019 found that adolescents who combine aggressive behavior with prosociality achieve the greatest social success.
But who exactly are teenagers who are bullied? According to Robert Faris of the University of California, Davis and colleagues write in the American Journal of SociologyIt might not be who you would expect. Rather than bullying those farther away from them, teens often choose their own friends.
The data comes from a longitudinal study of middle and high school students in grades 6, 7 and 8 (years 7, 8 and 9 in the UK). The team specifically dealt with aggression and created “networks” that reflected who was aggressive towards whom in schools. These were based on peer nominations from students who named up to five schoolmates who had “done something mean” to them in the past three months, plus five they had been mean. This did not involve friendly teasing, but focused on real aggression.
Participants also indicated who their five closest friends were. As with aggression, a matrix was created to understand mutual and unrequited friendships, connect friends of friends, and measure whether friendships were maintained or broken over the course of the study.
The team also looked at various adverse effects of bullying – anxiety, depression, and lack of school attachment, based on children’s self-reports. The aggression matrix and the friendship matrix were then compared to determine whether pupils of friends, friends of friends, or more distant schoolmates were victims.
The team found that bullying was more likely to occur in friendships and between friends of friends than between children with more distant social ties. This could be due in part to aggression between former Friends: Aggression was three times more likely to occur in friendships that broke up during the school year. Or, it could indicate a “frenemy” relationship in which both friendship and aggression coincide – aggression was four times more likely to occur in friendships that were sustained through the study than in more distant relationships (although it is important to note the difference in the rates of aggression between former friends and “frenemies” are not significant). Unsurprisingly, the team also found evidence that being bullied is linked to significant increases in depression and anxiety, and a decrease in bondage to school.
The results suggest that victimization is a common experience for teenagers – and that it may be friends and friends of friends who engage in this aggression, whether or not these bonds are mutual. While individual characteristics or social and family circumstances are key to understanding why teens bully others, the results also suggest that the complex social dynamics of schools can also play a significant role.
This could be a chance to rethink anti-bullying programs, the team suggests: As previous research has shown, aggression can have a positive social outcome for bullies and help them climb the social ladder. If you think more carefully about how to strengthen existing friendships and highlight their rewards, it can be a way to diminish the social value created by aggression.
– With friends like that: aggression out of friendship and equality
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles