It's not just 'drama': Bullying happens to popular teens, too

We’re familiar with the stereotypical teenage victim of bullying: They’re usually the loners, the kids on the fringes of the school’s social network. But new research suggests a previously overlooked group of bullying victims: the kids who are popular, but not quite at the top of the school’s hierarchy. (Not the Regina Georges from "Mean Girls," but the Gretchen Weiners, if you will.)

“The traditional pattern of bullying is pretty well established: the kids who are being picked on are vulnerable in some way. They’ve violated the unwritten rules of high school life,” says Robert Faris, lead author of the report and an associate professor at the University of California, Davis. “It turns out that as kids are increasing their status they’re also becoming more attractive as targets for their rivals.”

Specifically, as a kid climbs his or her way into the school’s upper echelons of popularity, that kid’s chance of being bullied increases by more than 25 percent, Faris said. The findings were true for both guys and girls. In the new paper, published Tuesday in the journal American Sociological Review, Faris and his colleagues call these students the “unnoticed victims of school-based aggression: popular students near the hub of school social life, hidden in plain sight.”

The researchers used data from more than 4,000 8th, 9th and 10th graders from 19 public schools in North Carolina. The kids were asked to name up to five peers who they “picked on or were mean to,” and five more who “picked on or were mean to” them.

From the teenagers’ answers to their surveys, they created a sort of social networking map of the schools. And, to be clear, the kids you’d expect to be bulled — the kids with body image issues, the kids who hadn’t quite hit puberty yet, the loners — were indeed bullied. 

“We find evidence of that traditional pattern where kids were vulnerable. Kids who were complete isolates … were at increased risk of getting picked on,” Faris says. “But as kids are increasing in their social status they’re increasingly coming under fire from their peers.”

As has been observed elsewhere, high school is kind of like an adolescent “Game of Thrones,” in terms of the struggles over power and position. 

“I think these kids are being targeted because they occupy desirable social positions that their rivals seek,” Faris says. “Often friendship groups have one or two leaders, who make a lot of the decisions about, say, whether to go shopping or watch a movie. This can be tiresome, and ambitious kids may eventually try to usurp their leaders, especially if they have overreached.”

In a second part of the study, the researchers examined the negative consequences of aggression at school, including depression and anxiety. They found that the more popular the students are, the harder the victimization seemed to hit them, emotionally speaking: the more popular students reported feeling more anger, anxiety and depression from a single incident of bullying than the less popular students.

“I think what’s going on there is that the kids who fit that first pattern of bullying, where they’re vulnerable and different … these are kids who’ve generally been picked on, often brutally, since childhood,” Faris says. “By the time they get to high school, they already have elevated levels of depression and anxiety. A given incidence of bullying doesn’t alter their sense of self.”

The more popular kids, on the other hand, may have worked hard to achieve their social status, and “they may feel like they have a whole lot more to lose,” Faris says.

In their questions to the teenagers, researchers didn’t use the term “bullying” when addressing the kids; that’s on purpose. Because even though academics, school officials and the media use (and perhaps overuse) the term “bully,” teenagers don’t, Faris says. “Bullying” seems like something that happens to elementary-school-aged kids — something that would happen on the playground. In high school, he says, it’s “drama.” 

That’s something for parents of teenagers to watch out for, he notes. 

If a teen complains of “drama,” take the complaints seriously. And parents should also remember that a kid’s life may look good on paper, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story, says Rosalind Wiseman, a parenting educator whose best-selling book, “Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World,” was the inspiration for the movie “Mean Girls.”

“Parents need to stop assuming that just because your child is popular, especially with high social status, that everything between the kids is always great,” Wiseman says.