Is Bullying Cool? Middle Schoolers Think So

Popular kids start rumors and fights, and they receive social rewards for doing it. ->

It's no secret that preventing bullying is complicated, but a UCLA psychology study has teased out one component that may shed some light on how to make anti-bullying programs work:

It's the cool kids who are often the bullies. That's what the researchers discovered after surveying 1,895 seventh- and eighth-graders in 11 Los Angeles middle schools about which kids were considered coolest and which ones started rumors and instigated fights. The kids were surveyed at three different points during seventh and eighth grade.

Those named coolest were often named most aggressive at the next survey, and vice versa. In other words, both physical and emotional bullying seem to be rewarded in the world of middle school.

"The impetus for the study was to figure out whether aggression promotes social status, or whether those who are perceived as popular abuse their social power and prestige by putting other kids down," said Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA professor of psychology and lead author of the study in a press release. "We found it works both ways for both ‘male-typed' and ‘female-typed' forms of aggression."

In order to be effective, then, anti-bullying programs need to focus on the bystanders, Juvonen said.

"A simple message, such as ‘Bullying is not tolerated,' is not likely to be very effective," Juvonen said.

The idea is that if bullying is not rewarded by an increase in social status, that might be enough to deter some of the aggressive behavior.

"Bullying is a problem that large numbers of kids confront on a daily basis at school; it's not just an issue for the few unfortunate ones," Juvonen has said. "Students reported feeling humiliated, anxious or disliking school on days when they reported incidents, which shows there is no such thing as ‘harmless' name-calling or an ‘innocent' punch.'"

Parents should talk with the kids about bullying before it happens, Juvonen advises.

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