We already know that bullying can be one way of climbing the social ladder for teenagers. Research published in 2019, for instance, found that teenagers who combine aggressive behaviour with prosociality see the most social success.
But who, exactly, are teenagers bullying? According to Robert Faris from the University of California, Davis and colleagues, writing in the American Journal of Sociology, it might not be who you’d expect. Rather than bullying those more distant from them, the team finds, teens often pick on their own friends.
Data came from a longitudinal study of middle and high school students in grades 6, 7, and 8 (years 7, 8, and 9 in the UK). The team looked specifically at aggression, creating “networks” that reflected who had been aggressive towards whom at the schools. These were based on peer-nominations by the students, who had named up to five schoolmates who had “done something mean” to them in the past three months, as well as five they had been mean to. This didn’t include friendly teasing, focusing instead on acts of genuine aggression.
Participants also indicated who their five closest friends were. As with aggression, a matrix was created to understand mutual and unrequited friendships, as well as linking friends of friends and measuring whether friendships were sustained or dissolved over the course of the study.
The team also looked at several adverse outcomes of being bullied — anxiety, depression, and lack of attachment to school, based on self-reports from the kids. The aggression matrix and friendship matrix were then cross-referenced in order to ascertain whether students were being victimised by friends, friends of friends, or by more distant schoolmates.
The team found that bullying was more likely to occur within friendships, and between friends of friends, compared to between kids with more distant social ties. This could partly be down to aggression between former friends: aggression was three times more likely to arise within friendships that dissolved during the school year. But it might also indicate a “frenemy” relationship, wherein both friendship and aggression coincide — aggression was four times more likely to occur in friendships that sustained themselves through the study than in more distant relationships (though it’s important to note the difference in rates of aggression between former friends and “frenemies” is not significant). Unsurprisingly, the team also found evidence that being bullied is associated with significant increases in depression and anxiety and decreases in attachment to school.
What is clear from the results is that victimisation is a common experience for teenagers — and that it can be friends and friends of friends who perpetrate this aggression, whether those ties are mutual or not. While individual traits or social and familial circumstances are key to understanding why teens bully others, the results also suggest that the complex social dynamics of schools can play a significant part too.
This may be a chance to rethink anti-bullying programmes, the team suggests: as previous research has shown, aggression can have a positive social outcome for bullies, helping them climb the social ladder. Thinking more carefully about how to strengthen existing friendships and highlight their rewards may be one way of reducing the social value accrued through aggression.