Popularity and Bullying – Is There a Link?

Friday November 30, 2012

By Sherri M. Gordon

There is no point in life that is more filled with obsessiveness about popularity, reputations and peer perceptions than the middle school years. Kids often agonize over what their classmates think. And they worry whether or not they will be invited to the next party. Many times, these worries even trump other middle school concerns.

In fact, figuring out where they stand in the social pecking order has plagued tweens and early teens for years. And, it has created lots of fodder for books, cartoons and television programs over the years.

But when it's all said and done how important is it to be popular in middle school? One study found that being popular is not actually as important as a child's perception of being well liked.

What they discovered was that regardless of how popular kids are, if the teens felt good about their own social standing and had a solid self-esteem then they did well in school and in life. What's more, they were less hostile and more frequently sought out by their peers.

Meanwhile, kids who lacked a sense of their social acceptance and were rated by their classmates as unpopular did the worst. As a result, they became more hostile and aggressive over time.

So what role then does popularity play the when it comes to bullying? Research has shown that when kids' perceptions of themselves are undermined either by a quest to become popular or by a parent's quest to make them popular, the results can be disastrous. In fact, the teen often becomes more hostile and aggressive the longer popularity eludes them. And eventually they begin bullying.

The reason is simple. A pre-occupation with popularity status - whether from the parent or the child - places an inordinate amount of pressure and stress on the teen. And many times bullying others seems like the only answer to climb the social ladder.

Another study echoes this theory. Researchers found that kids on the middle rungs of the social ladder bully more than those at the top and those at the very bottom. Again, this happens because kids in the middle of the social hierarchy are trying to get to the top and they use bullying to get there.

These results have strong implications for bullying prevention. For instance, anti-bullying programs at school should pay attention to the more subtle forms of bullying like relational aggression, cyberbullying and harassment because these aggressive behaviors are often rooted in status.

As a result, bullying prevention should include fostering healthy self-esteem and authenticity. Other efforts should include addressing cliques at school, mean girls and other aspects tied to popularity. For more information on popularity and bullying, check out my article How Pushing Kids to Be Popular Leads to Bullying.

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

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