Turns out being popular might not save you from sneering, jabbing and harassment in school yards, a new University of California study concludes – the persecution is certainly not exclusive to those who are poor or “physically vulnerable.” In fact, becoming popular increases the risk of getting bullied, and worsens the negative consequences of being victimized, according to the same study.
“In contrast to stereotypes of wallflowers as the sole targets of peer aggression, adolescents who are relatively popular are also at high risk of harassment, the invisible victims of school-based aggression,” says Robert Faris, associate professor of sociology at UC Davis and co-author of the study, “Casualties of Social Combat: School Networks of Peer Victimization and their Consequences.”
“Do aggressors attack the weak?,” the study asks. “According to our findings, the answer to this question is: not as often as they attack the strong. Aside from a few isolated students, the highest rates of victimization are observed among students of relatively high social standing.” The brunt of it decreases however as students rise to the pinnacle of the hierarchy of social standing.
Being “easier targets,” girls face much harassment too, but are not under-represented in studies on school violence and bullying. And what usually goes unchecked is their repertoire of retaliation, like using gossip in counter strikes for instance. Girls are not always physically aggressive, while guys are expected to “defend their honor with brute force.” It’s a play between social expectations and constraints, the study explains.
It’s worth noting however that “girls do not harass other girls generally, but focus their harassment on girls who date,” since they pose threats to other female students’ social standing, and “represent potential rivals when it comes to securing a boyfriend.” It’s also interesting that once a victim of bullying, you put your friends at higher risk of being victimized by proxy.
“It’s kind of a hidden pattern of victimization that is rooted in the competition for social status,” the author was quoted as saying in a press release.
“We view aggression as fundamentally rooted in status processes, and we identify an overlooked class of victims, who, by virtue of their relatively lofty social positions, experience at least as much distress—at the margin—as do those for whom victimization is routine,” reads the study, which used social network centrality as an indicator of status. The research sample was predominantly white and African American but roughly split between genders.
There isn’t a country or community that is absolutely immune to school victimization, it seems – in Egypt alone, statistics by the National Centre for Social and Criminal Research suggest that 30 per cent of students suffer from some type of harassment or bullying in schools, and across the Arab World, a 2012 study published in the Arab Journal of Psychiatry, confirmed that the phenomenon is prevalent, especially among middle-school adolescents. In the United Arab Emirates, 20 per cent of teens are bullied, in Morocco, 31.9 per cent are, in Lebanon the number rises to 33.6 per cent, as per the same study, and Oman and Jordan reportedly suffer from the highest prevalence of school bullying at 39.1 per cent and 44.2 per cent respectively.
During reporting on sectarian violence in several towns in Upper Egypt, this writer has personally come across several cases where Coptic Christian students complained they were specifically targeted –sometimes physically attacked– by their Muslim peers for their beliefs. But no official figures or studies that assess the extent or range of religious-based bullying –or bullying of minorities– in Egypt have yet been released. The same goes for studies that measure the relation between bullying and social status within school hierarchy.
Bullying –unlike school violence—usually happens in the absence of provocation, and is marked by a clear power imbalance between the bully and the bullied. Recent scholarship, according to Faris’ study, even points out traditional views that saw bullies as mentally troubled or socially marginalized seem to be outdated, and that students usually harass their peers, not to reenact their troubled home lives, but to gain status.
I showed Faris’ research to Melanie Hayden, a secondary school counselor based in Cairo, Egypt. She found the findings “interesting” adding that she has “occasionally been aware of a ‘popular’ student being targeted in some way by others who saw them as a threat (either to their own ‘popularity’ position or a jealousy issue).” And as a psychologist, she “can certainly understand where a student trying to ‘work their way up’ the hierarchy is also vulnerable to being bullied, certainly before they’ve ‘arrived’ and they’re becoming a threat to others’ status etc.”
“For those ‘at the top’ I can see how they’re much less vulnerable due to the ‘power’ of being very popular, or very successful – and likely better self-esteem, which I’d think is a key factor,” she says.
It’s not clear however whether the conclusions of this study can be used to generalize about bullying dynamics across cultures; and whether or not school structures in the United States, or the degree of competitiveness between students in certain schools, contribute to the instrumental factors that shape this brand of victimization. Then again, sample students from the research played sports, went on dates, and lived with parents, at least one of who attended college.
These factors may not be present in many Arab schools that are often gender-segregated, may not be as ripe with extra-curricular activities as U.S. schools are, may not place strong emphasis on sports as an indicator of student status and are certainly more conservative than their American counterparts in terms of tolerating “cross-gender” relationships.
Finally, the study mentions how such findings related to bullying are not merely theoretical and carry practical implications—as they should—on national discourse; the ranks of victims are not exclusively dominated by vulnerable, socially marginal students, but are also full of many students who relatively popular, and who seem well-adjusted, at least on the surface. “We hope these more central victims, hidden in plain sight, are acknowledged in the national dialogue,” says Faris. “And that the current focus on bullying expands to include more subtle forms of harassment and cruelty.”