As adolescents climb their school's social ladder, so does the risk of falling victim to bullying, with greater negative consequences, says a new study published in the American Sociological Review.
Adolescents' risk of being bullied increased as their popularity rose - and then abruptly plummeted once they reached the pinnacle of their school's social ladder, the researchers found.
Robert Faris, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, who conducted the study with Diane Felmlee, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, says:
"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."
US government data on bullying suggest that 20-28% of American schoolchildren have experienced bullying in recent years.
Most striking result was high levels of popular students among the victims
The popular crowd is not immune from bullying; researchers found as teens climb the social ladder, so does their risk of being bullied.
While they found female adolescents and socially or physically vulnerable teenagers to be among the victims of bullying, the most striking result, the researchers of this new study say, was the high proportion of popular teens that were also targeted.
For their study, they examined the social networks of 4,000 adolescents in grades 8 to 10, attending 19 schools in three North Carolina counties.
From various questions they asked each participant about victimization and friendship, including the names of their five closest friends, the researchers were able to assemble each school's social network - a web of relationships showing the most popular students at the central hub.
They found that for most students, status increased the risk of victimization, accompanied by harmful psychological, social and academic consequences, and higher levels of anxiety, anger and depression.
Popular students have 'farther to fall'
Prof. Faris says:
"Most of these adverse consequences were worse for high-status targets, because while socially marginal youth are often brutally tormented, a single bullying event may be particularly psychologically and socially damaging for popular students, who feel that they have farther to fall."
"However," he and Prof. Fermlee note in their study paper, "youth at the uppermost extremes of the school hierarchy - students in the top 5% of centrality and those with cross-gender friendships where such friendships are rare - sit just above the fray, unlikely to fall victim to their peers."
In 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study that found victims of childhood bullying fare poorly in adulthood. The researchers, who reported their findings in the journal Psychological Science, said we should not dismiss bullying as an inevitable, harmless part of growing up.