Why don’t high school bullies pick on someone their own size? Actually, they do.

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In stereotypical scenes of high school drama, the jock shoves the nerd into a locker, and the prom queen torments the brace-face. When it comes to bullying, people assume the popular kids always tease the little guys.

Cassie McMillan, assistant professor of sociology, criminology, and criminal justice. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

But a new study has found that high schoolers are actually more likely to “pick on someone their own size.” Bullying occurs most often between friends or people on the same rung of the social ladder, according to a paper co-authored by Cassie McMillan, assistant professor of sociology, criminology, and criminal justice at Northeastern. 

“Bullying is about increasing social status,” says McMillan. “We observed bullying among pairs of friends because friends often see each other as rivals who are competing over the same social rewards, such as the starting quarterback position or the interest of a potential romantic partner.” 

After analyzing a year’s worth of surveys collected from 14 middle and high schools, McMillan and her team found that students who were friends in the fall were three times more likely to bully each other come spring semester than students who weren’t friends. 

As for longer-term friendships that lasted throughout the fall and spring semesters, the probability of bullying was even higher—close friends were four times more likely to bully each other eventually than non-friends, though the duration of the friendship was less important than how similarly ranked two students were in social status.

“The ‘frenemy effect’ is not explained by the amount of time the friends spent together,” says Robert Faris, lead author of the paper and a professor at the University of California, Davis, in a press release.  

Furthermore, classmates who are not necessarily friends but share many friends in common are also more likely to bully each other compared to schoolmates with no overlapping friendships.

Unsurprisingly, while bullying may successfully boost the bully’s social status, the victims experience detrimental effects.  

“We’re not talking about casual horseplay,” McMillan says. “Students who are experiencing victimizations from friends tend to report higher instances of depression and anxiety, and lower levels of attachment to their schools.” 

Previously, bullying has been viewed as an aggression problem. “Bullies are typically thought of as teenagers who act out because of psychological struggles or difficult home environments,” McMillan says. This study offers a wider perspective on the issue by contextualizing the main reasons why adolescents pick on each other.

“The process of status-seeking is what’s primarily driving adolescent bullying behaviors, as opposed to one-off instances of aggression happening between pairs of teenagers who are not friends,” she says.

The study also found that bullying within social circles happens at all levels of the hierarchy. “Social outcasts appear to be doing this as much as popular teens on the higher rungs of the social ladder,” McMillan says. 

The self-reported survey information, which was collected in 2007, reflects an earlier era when cyberbullying was only just emerging. (It took over a decade for the researchers to meticulously organize and analyze the student answers by hand, hence the time gap.) But McMillan suspects that these bullying trends are still true today. 

“With many students attending school remotely, these behaviors could be exacerbated right now. The rise of the internet and social media likely makes this status-seeking process even more complex,” McMillan says. 

In any case, the researchers believe anti-bullying campaigns need to change their approach in order to be effective. “Even the most successful prevention programs are unable to alter the behavior of popular bullies who use cruelty to gain and maintain status,” the researchers write in the paper. 

Emphasizing extracurricular activities and other bonding experiences that highlight the importance of friendship could help reduce students’ desire for popularity and thus bullying, the researchers suggest. 

For media inquiries, please contact Jessica Hair at j.hair@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.