UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When a parent finds out their child is being picked on, it’s natural to think the bully is some misbehaving kid from another class or school. Unfortunately, a new study finds a child’s own friends are more likely to bully them than youngsters they don’t know.
Researchers from Penn State say teens tend to bully their mates when vying for a higher social status in their friendship group. They also tend to pick on others if they’re competing for a love interest. Children who had been friends for longer were actually more likely to have have bullied one another, study authors reveal. The research team believes anti-bullying campaigns could be failing because they don’t address conflict between friends.
“People often assume that bullying occurs between relative strangers, or that it targets those on the fringes of the social network,” says Diane Felmlee, distinguished professor of sociology and demography, in a university release.
“Those do occur, but in our study, we find that the rate of peer aggression is significantly higher between those students who are closely linked. Furthermore, our finding is not due to friends simply spending more time together, nor is it only animosity between former friends. Even those whose friendship continued over the school year were more likely to bully those friends.”
Bullying is a serious problem among teens
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in five youngsters between 12 and 18 years-old become the victim of a school bully. While many anti-bullying programs exist, the researchers note they are not always effective.
“One reason that bullying prevention programs often fall short is they may not account for the fact that popularity contests common in high school tend to encourage peer bullying,” Prof. Felmlee explains. “Bullies who are popular use cruelty to gain attention and status, and that form of bullying remains particularly difficult to stem.”
Researchers surveyed over 3,000 children once a year throughout the five years of the study. The team constructed “aggression networks” by asking students to nominate up to five classmates who pick on them or are mean to them. This allowed study authors to identify both bullies and victims.
Penn State researchers also asked the kids to identify their friends during each survey so the team could observe how friendships evolve over time. The scientists then measured levels of anxiety, depression, and how positively attached the students felt to their school.
‘Frenemies’ do the most harm
The results reveal peer aggression occurs at higher rates between friends and friends-of-friends than between children who don’t know each other well. One of the students who reported being the victim of a friend says, “sometimes your own friends bully you. I don’t understand why, why my friends do this to me.”
“These conflicts likely arise between young people who are eyeing the same spot on the team, club, or vying for the same best friend or romantic partner,” Prof. Felmlee says. “Those who are closely linked in the school social network are apt to encounter situations in which they are rivals for identical positions and social ties.”
The results, appearing in the American Journal of Sociology, could help with both designing anti-bullying programs and help victimized youngsters cope.
“Many adolescents may not be aware of how common friend-to-friend bullying is. Knowing that they are not alone in such an experience could be reassuring,” Felmlee concludes. “Plus, a better understanding of the social processes that underlie aggression among ‘frenemies’ could aid parents and school counselors in attempting to help young victims and their bullies.”
SWNS contributed to this report.