Behind the Bullies.

by Leslie Morgan Steiner


Bullying has become 2011’s white-hot sensation in schools, blogs and parent’s minds.


With good reason. The highly-publicized suicides of Massachusetts cyber victim Phoebe Prince and Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi have frightened parents across the country and prompted schools and universities to spotlight bullying and intervene aggressively. But bullying, as any kid knows, presents in intricate, complex packages that parents and school officials often cannot unwrap and disarm until it’s too late.


Asked to picture a bully, most of us imagine a physically imposing, angry, swaggering boy, or a socially adept “mean girl.” Asked to imagine victims, we think of quiet, physically weaker, less attractive social outcasts. But new research on bullies upends these traditional stereotypes, exposing less visible, more pernicious forms of psychological warfare where victims and perpetrators are harder to tell apart.


As reported recently in the New York Times, U.C. Davis researchers have conducted a series of studies, surveys, and yeoman’s social mapping to deconstruct patterns of friendships among 8th to 10th graders.


Surprisingly, they found that one third of teenagers are involved in aggressive bullying. Most kids in the middle of the social pack are subject to, and perpetrators of, bullying behavior in less obvious ways than kids at the very top and bottom of the popularity scale. Most teenage bullying is targeted at social rivals, not social outcasts. Social status is a ladder (to some, at least), meaning that to move up you need to target kids right above and next to you, and to stay popular you need to defend your position from kids at your level. This means, quite often, that you are bullied by your friends and that you bully your peers.


Ring true, anyone?


I remember vividly the dynamics of my 7th and 8th grade clique. We didn’t bother the girls on the outside of the clique. Why would we? They were no threat; the only bullying we inflicted was ignoring them. The girls we targeted most often – leaving Listerine in the locker of one with bad breath, slipping deodorant into the purse of another with body odor – were our own best friends. The girls I most feared were the ones whose bedrooms I knew as well as my own. In one stand-out gym class, my best friend convinced me she had cancer. Only after 24 hours of tears and frantic conversations did my pals let me know I’d been punked. Thanks, girlfriends.