UC DAVIS (US) — The most popular teens—and those at the bottom of the popularity pack—are the least likely to be aggressive to their peers, according to a new study.
“Our findings underscore the argument that—for the most part—attaining and maintaining a high social status likely involves some level of antagonistic behavior,” says Robert Faris, assistant professor of sociology at University of California, Davis.
The study, published in the American Sociological Review finds that it’s actually students who are popular, but not the most popular, who are most likely to torment other adolescents.
“The fact that they both have reduced levels of aggression is true, but it can be attributed to quite different things,” says co-author Diane Felmlee, professor of sociology.
“The ones at the bottom don’t have the social power or as much capacity to be aggressive whereas the ones at the top have all that power, but don’t need to use it.”
Students’ popularity was determined by how central they were in their school’s web of friendships. Aggression is defined as behavior directed toward harming or causing pain to another. It can be physical (hitting, shoving or kicking), verbal (name-calling or threats) or indirect (spreading rumors or ostracism).
Increases in social status for both males and females are accompanied by subsequent increases in aggression until a student approaches the top of the social hierarchy.
Adolescents in the top 2 percent of the social hierarchy—where aggression peaks—have an average aggression rate that is 28 percent greater than students at the very bottom and 40 percent greater than students at the very top.
Aggression rate is calculated based on the number of classmates a student victimized in the past three months.
“Aggression usually requires some degree of social support, power, or influence,” Faris says. “This is mostly because students expect to see each other on a daily basis at school and any act of aggression brings risk of retaliation.
“Those at the center of the web of social ties are, we believe, more powerful and may deter retribution.”
Yet, those students at the very top of the social hierarchy—who seemingly possess the most social capacity for aggressiveness—generally aren’t aggressive.
“If an adolescent at the top of the social hierarchy were to act aggressively towards his or her peers, such action could signal insecurity or weakness rather than cement the student’s position,” says Faris.
“And, it’s possible that, at the highest level, they may receive more benefits from being pro-social and kind.”
Young people at the top level may also be “somehow different” and “not disposed to aggressiveness in the first place,” Faris says.
The study used data from The Context of Adolescent Substance Use survey, a longitudinal survey of adolescents at 19 public schools in three counties in North Carolina that began in the spring of 2002, and included 3,722 eighth-, ninth- and 10th -grade students during the 2004-5 school year.
While the study focuses on a sample of small-town and rural North Carolina students, Faris expects similar results in bigger cities.
“I would be surprised if kids in New York City or L.A. were radically different than kids in North Carolina.”
Interventions targeted specifically at aggressive kids or victims miss the point, Faris says.
“I would start by focusing on the kids who are not involved and work on encouraging them to be less passive or approving of these sorts of antagonistic relationships.
“It’s through these kids who are not involved that the aggressive kids get their power.”
Funding was provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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