The most popular kids aren't the bullies we should fear. Their friends are.
We often think of bullying as the big beating up the small. We think of large, dumb, brutish Moe stealing lunch money from Calvin in Calvin & Hobbes, or Back to the Future's Biff Tannen picking on George McFly. But a new study by the American Sociological Association, which examined the social and digital networks in an affluent suburban New York high school, reveals that the most aggressive bullying happens among friends vying for social status.
The real bullies aren't the coolest, most popular kids — they're the ones on the edge of the inner circle trying to get in, and they're using bullying as a tool for social mobility.
For a great example of how this plays out in a (fictional) social group, consider Stranger Things, Netflix's summer 2016 cult sci-fi hit.
The show sets up two visions of bullying. The first is Troy, the middle-schooler who beats up on Mike Wheeler's crew of Dungeons & Dragons-playing dorks. He's a cliche: a middle-school bully of the wedgies-and-swirlies stock, vanquished only by telekinetic force and raucous public humiliation. Thanks to '80s film stereotypes, Troy is instantly recognizable — but not the most realistic portrayal of school bullying, according to the ASA's study.
For another kind of bully, look at Stranger Things' Tommy and Carol, the sex-crazed lackeys of Nancy Wheeler's boyfriend Steve Harrington. They torment their friends over any display of sensitivity. They ostracize Nancy's friend Barb for rejecting teen norms and hesitating to engage with their delinquency. And when Steve begins to sympathize with Nancy and her cause (saving her brother's friend), they turn on him, too.
This kind of bully, who targets their closest friends from within the inner sanctum of popularity, is the most aggressive kind, according to the ASA's study.
University of California, Davis, professor Robert Faris, who wrote the bullying report with colleague Diane Felmlee, explained their findings to Mic over the phone.
"If each kid is a dot, and you connect dots by friendships, school social networks tend to look like birds nest, with a dense core," Faris said. "And where kids fit on the closeness of that core, as opposed to being a marginal kid on the periphery, has a lot of implications for their aggressive behavior."
The problem with calling it "cyberbullying": The term "cyberbullying" holds a lot of baggage for Faris, who prefers the term "digital aggression." Scholarly tradition maintains that bullying is something that happens to the disempowered, and over a long period of time. Instead, Faris' long-term research into these social structures shows that anyone can be vulnerable to childhood cruelty. And even though his findings show, unsurprisingly, that ostracized LGBTQ youth are targeted at a rate more than four times what heterosexual peers face, social status amplifies the negative psychological effects of bullying.
Think of social status in terms of income inequality. According to Faris' research, the core 1% of kids aren't the vicious social climbers and backstabbers. Often, their social status comes from inherited factors like wealth, power or good looks. It's the kids immediately surrounding these children, the kids fighting for the center, that are the most aggressive of all.
When that upper-middle class of social climbers reaches the center of the school's social network, they cool off and become less aggressive.
"Bullying behavior tends to increase up until the point that they approach the very center," Faris said. "On average, the very most popular kids are the least aggressive. There's a huge difference between kids at the 98% and the 95%."
Faris emphasized that the majority of kids aren't bullies. But for a small group of kids, aggression is a valuable tool for those who want to cement their precarious position at the center of a network.
"The big finding here is that it's our friends that are doing it to us," Faris said. "Our best friends."