Anti-bullying campaigns might be tough to enforce in middle schools, because nasty behavior, whether it's picking fights or spreading ugly rumors, seems to boost kids' popularity, new research shows.
A group of psychologists studied nearly 2,000 students at 11 middle schools in Los Angeles. They conducted surveys in the spring of seventh grade and the fall and spring of eighth grade; participants named their peers who were considered the "coolest," as well as those who "start fights or push other kids around," and those who "spread nasty rumors about other kids."
Often, the students who ranked coolest at one point were named among the most aggressive during the next survey, the researchers said. Conversely, the ones thought to be most aggressive went on to rank among the most popular.
"The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool," study researcher Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA professor of psychology, said in a statement. "What was particularly interesting was that the form of aggression, whether highly visible and clearly confrontational or not, did not matter. Pushing or shoving and gossiping worked the same for boys and girls."
The findings are in partial agreement with previous studies that showed popular kids are most likely to act aggressively toward other kids.
The new study, detailed in the February edition of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, suggests anti-bullying programs need to be more subtle to succeed. Juvonen said campaigns should focus on bystanders, showing them how their tacit approval allows bullies to thrive. Other research has shown that bullies choose their victims wisely, often targeting kids who are unpopular and less likely to be defended by onlookers.