New view of targets & bullies: Study

By Anne Collier

The latest research on bullying – a series of studies of 3,722 8th-to-10th-graders in three North Carolina counties – found that targets of bullying are not physically or socially weaker or marginalized students so much as social rivals. What’s interesting about this is that the focus is shifting from individual traits (how strong or aggressive or marginalized kids are) to where they are in the social pecking order at school – which confirms how fluid the roles of targets and aggressors are. In other words, being a bully or target isn’t a static thing, and nobody’s a born victim, we’re thankfully coming to see (who needs that sort of latter-day “predestination”?).

But let’s be clear: We’re not talking about all students, here. “Over all, the research shows that about a third of students are involved in aggressive behavior,” according to the New York Times’s coverage of this research, which is being published in the American Sociological Review this month. That all kids are not equally at risk has been established in past research, and these new findings also further confirm that what’s being called cyberbullying represents a spectrum of behaviors, roles, and motives, and the egregious cases being reported in the news media are not typical.

“In another paper presented last year, [the lead researcher, Prof. Robert] Faris reported that most teenage aggression is directed at social rivals – ‘maybe one rung ahead of you or right beneath you,’ as he put it, ‘rather than the kid who is completely unprotected and isolated.'” Dr. Faris also found that “the students near the top of the social hierarchy are often both perpetrators and victims,” and those at the very top among the students engaged in this social drama (the “top 2%”) are “less likely to be aggressive,” Faris told Times writer Tara Parker-Pope, his interpretation of that being that this group no longer needs to be aggressive – and, anyway, being so “could be counterproductive, signaling insecurity with their social position.”

“Educators and parents are often unaware of the daily stress and aggression with which even socially well-adjusted students must cope,” Parker-Pope writes, and I agree. But I think as we can begin to see this – and help our kids see it for what it is – we can help them get some emotional distance from it, which builds resiliency or at least coping strategies. At least, this is what I’m seeing at my house. How about yours? [Email me your experiences anytime via anne[at], or comment below!]

Important related link

* See also this excellent piece on relational aggression in Education Week, citing Dutch and US studies involving US students from elementary to high school.

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