The Harder They Fall

New research shows that high-status kids go after each other more than they go after misfits. The targets say they suffer more, too.

popular girls.

The cool kids may face even more social ruthlessness.

Photo by A-wrangler/iStock/Thinkstock

Who are the kids who get picked on by other kids—and who suffer most as a result? We are used to worrying about the socially isolated misfits, the tweens and teens who are far down in the pecking order and can’t really defend themselves. We should still worry about those kids, especially if they’re disabled, or gay at a school where that’s not accepted. But they are not the only targets of teenage cruelty. The surprising finding in a new study is that it’s kids with social clout—the popular kids—who report the most distress when they say they’re victimized by their peers.

Robert Faris of the University of California at Davis, who co-authored this study with Diane Felmlee of Penn State, is one of my favorite researchers on the damage kids inflict on each other, partly because he stays away from the word bullying when framing questions for his long-term research on high school students in North Carolina. He thinks kids understand the term too narrowly. I think they increasingly find it infantilizing and tiresome—they’re sick of being preached at. Faris is after something more than the classic pairing of powerful bully and powerless victim. He’s trying to capture teenage social structures, and drama, in all their complexity.

To that end, in the fall of 2004, Faris and Felmlee asked about 4,200 North Carolina students in eighth, ninth, and 10th grades to name five kids “who picked on you or were mean to you in the past three months.” The students were asked to disregard playful teasing and only count serious incidents. Faris and Felmlee then followed up the next spring, asking the students about their distress levels, measured in terms of anxiety, depression, anger, and attachment to school. Finally, they mapped the students on a school-wide social network, using additional data about who was friends with who to figure out each kid’s centrality in the school’s social structure.

Faris and Felmlee’s approach captures two kinds of meanness and suffering. There is the familiar targeting of the socially isolated kids, who still get picked on more than average and reported significant increases in anxiety and depression. But there is much more of what Faris calls “instrumental targeting”—an attack of cruelty by one social rival against another. This can mean getting punched, but it more often involves being the subject of gossip or taunting or eye-rolling or back-turning—forms of meanness that Faris calls “cold-blooded calculation.” If you think of being cruel as a way to assert and enhance one’s social standing—which is in fact the role it plays in too many schools—then it makes sense to take down someone who is close to you in status. “It is more impressive to attack the strong than the weak,” Faris points out, so instrumental targeting “will center on relatively high-status adolescents.” He’s not talking about a one-way dynamic. “Social combat is not unilateral, and we suspect students will often be both aggressors and victims.”

Faris has shown that combat rises along with social connectedness in his previous work, too. And the new study is consistent with his earlier findings in its important exception to that rule: The high school students at the pinnacle of the social ladder—the queen bees and masterminds, to borrow Rosalind Wiseman’s useful terms—are insulated from the meanness that’s affecting everyone else. “Rarely does one expect the prom king to be thrown into a locker,” Faris and Felmlee write. But everyone else is more likely to take a social hit as they climb the social ladder.

And even more than the isolated kids, the higher-status ones said they subsequently experienced increases in depression, anxiety, and anger. “Centrality in the school friendship network magnified, rather than mitigated, the adverse consequences of victimization,” Faris and Felmlee write (their italics). That’s sort of surprising, given that having friends is supposed to buffer kids against bullying. But Faris and Felmlee explain it like this: “For higher-status victims, unaccustomed to peer victimization, a given incident likely takes on greater meaning, for what is at risk is not only social position, but identity itself.” The further the fall, the harder the landing.

If you’re a parent, you will probably not be surprised to hear that according to Faris, girls go through this form of rottenness more than boys. They’re especially prone to being harassed by other girls if they’re dating. (This links up with slut shaming, and the Mean Girls phenomenon that Wiseman and Rachel Simmons identified more than a decade ago.) On the other hand, interestingly, for both boys and girls, having multiple friendships with kids of the opposite gender provides some social protection.

OK, so now that Faris has focused our attention on the bumpy ride that high-status kids can experience, how much should we worry about them? When I asked Faris this, he gave two answers. On the don’t-panic front, he pointed out that most kids are not being harassed and made miserable. Less than one-third of the students at the 19 schools he studied said they’d been victimized in the past three months. And even though he instructed the students to report only serious incidents, he said that “some of this is normal teen conflict, and managing and learning from those experiences is a useful skill for adulthood.”

But for some of the kids who go through the gauntlet of peer cruelty, the consequences were serious and had lasting impact. “The average incident resulted in a significant amount of distress and social marginalization, which was still present six months later, so something bad is going on here,” Faris wrote to me in an email. One of the hardest parts of this, for adults trying to help, is that kids are all over the spectrum in how they filter similar experiences. “The same act of cruelty can have vastly different consequences depending on the victim—a nasty text can devastate one kid but be brushed off by another. Some kids are armored, others are soft and vulnerable.”

Faris and Felmlee come out with one clear proposal for schools: Bullying-prevention programs should try to de-emphasize hierarchy. The more that students feel there are multiple routes to social success—the choir as well as sports, chess champion as well as class president—the better. That sounds right to me, but also hard for adults to construct. Teenagers have to have their own ways of taking each other’s measure separate from adult wishes and meddling. That’s part of growing up. The trick is for them to lead each other to social rewards that come from building other people up rather than tearing them down. This study is an important reminder that all kinds of kids benefit from making that shift, from all points in the high school universe.