Life Relationships With friends like these: Why teen bullies target those closest to them
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With friends like these: Why teen bullies target those closest to them

Anti-bullying programs are failing because they don't account for the 'frenemy' and social-climbing dynamics, researchers say. Photo: Getty
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There’s been a tendency to regard child bullies as poor things: they angrily strike out because of psychological damage or an awful home environment.

According to a new study, school bullies are often plain old strategic mob bosses, harassing and victimising associates as a means of climbing the social ladder.

Further, their victims aren’t the shy kids stumbling around the periphery of the playground: it’s their friends, often best friends, they’re trying to destroy or slander, to make themselves look good.

The researchers, sociologists from University of California, Davis, say their findings “point to the reasons why most anti-bullying programs don’t work and suggest possible strategies for the future.”

New theory at odds with prevalent thinking

What makes this study important is that it overturns the idea that bullies mainly come from poorer or dysfunctional families.

As the researchers note, some common theories and definitions of bullying frame aggressive behavior as a response to an imbalance of power. These theories are “mainly directed at youths in the lower social strata in school or community environments who possibly have physical, social or psychological vulnerabilities.”

No doubt, that kind of bullying happens. But not in the main.

Professor Robert Faris has, for the past decade, been using social network analysis to figure out why teens bully each other, drink and do drugs, and engage in dating violence. He is the lead author of the new open-access paper.

“To the extent that this is true, we should expect them to target not vulnerable wallflowers, but their own friends, and friends-of-friends, who are more likely to be their rivals for higher rungs on the social ladder,” said Professor Faris.

His argument is a logical, even obvious, one: friends and associates with close ties to one another likely compete for positions within the same clubs, classrooms, sports and dating subgroups, which heightens the risk of conflict and aggression.

This paper “is the first known to show that those rivals are often their own friends … and that aggression can actually improve the social status of the aggressor.”

All of which suggests this ruthless behaviour, to quote a famous line from The Godather, isn’t personal – it’s just business: the business of getting ahead socially.

 What were the detailed findings?

According to a statement from the university:

  • The researchers used a large, longitudinal social network study of more than 3,000 eighth, ninth and 10th graders in North Carolina over the course of a single school year
  • The authors found that teens who were friends in the fall were more than three times as likely to bully or victimise each other in the spring of that same school year.
  • This wasn’t merely animosity between former friends who drifted apart.
  • Schoolmates whose friendships ended during the year were three times as likely to bully or victimise each other in the spring, while those whose friendships continued over the school year were over four times as likely to bully those friends.
  • This ‘frenemy effect’ is not explained by the amount of time friends spent together.
  • And “structurally equivalent” classmates – those who are not necessarily friends, but who share many friends in common – are also more likely to bully or otherwise victimize each other.
  • Compared to schoolmates with no overlapping friendships, those whose friendships are perfectly overlapping are roughly three times more likely to bully each other, and those who share the same bullies or victims are more than twice as likely to bully each other.

Perhaps the most obvious is that being victimised by friends “is particularly painful, and is associated with significant increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety, and significant decreases in school attachment.”

Why few anti-bullying programs work

According to Professor Faris: “The reason for the typically low success rates, we believe, is that aggressive behavior accrues social rewards, and to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends.

“Even the most successful prevention programs are unable to alter the aggressive behavior of popular bullies, who use cruelty to gain and maintain status.”

In other words, the immediate social benefits outweigh the moral cost.

As the authors write: “The popularity contests ubiquitous in secondary schools encourage peer bullying.”

The authors suggest that efforts to support and strengthen adolescent friendships – “such as broadening extracurricular offerings and hosting camps, trainings and retreats” – could help de-emphasise popularity and reduce the ‘frenemy effect’.

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