- Many students are involved in "social combat" as they navigate their school's social hierarchy
- Individual sttudents can be both aggressors and victims, the survey finds
- "Putting other people down" helps students gain respect, one high school junior says
- Family background does not appear to play a role in bullying behavior, study's author says
A new study commissioned by CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°" found that the stereotype of the schoolyard bully preying on the weak doesn't reflect reality in schools.
Instead, the research shows that many students are involved in "social combat" -- a constant verbal, physical and cyber fight to the top of the school social hierarchy.
"Kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status," explains Robert Faris, a sociologist whom "Anderson Cooper 360°" partnered with for the pilot study. "It's really not the kids that are psychologically troubled, who are on the margins or the fringes of the school's social life. It's the kids right in the middle, at the heart of things ... often, typically highly, well-liked popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors."
Faris, along with the co-author of the study, Diane Felmlee, also found that bullies, whom they call aggressors, and victims are not defined roles, but in many cases, they can be the same person. The higher students rise on the social ladder, the more they bully other students, and the more other students bully them.
"When kids increase in their status, on average, they tend to have a higher risk of victimization as well as a higher risk of becoming aggressive," Faris says.
The study was conducted this spring at The Wheatley School, a nationally top-ranked high school on Long Island, New York. More than 700 students at the school were given a survey with 28 questions on aggressive behavior four separate times throughout the semester. They were also given a roster of the entire school in which every student had an identification number and kids were asked to write down specifically who did what.
"AC 360°" anchor Anderson Cooper spoke recently to a group of students ranked highly by the research as aggressors, victims or both.
"No matter what high school you go to, what age you are, what social group you're in, you've been bullied and you are a bully," said Bridget, a junior, who was ranked highly as both a victim and an aggressor. "Once you start realizing that you can have ... higher social power by putting other people down ... that's, like, how people are moving up and that's how they're gaining respect."
To underscore the dichotomy of roles students can play, Bridget said she was taunted so severely about her weight when she was younger that she developed an eating disorder. "After you get bullied, you start to internalize it," she said adding, "it becomes obsessive."
Bridget has since recovered from her disorder.
Josh, a senior who was also ranked highly as both a victim and an aggressor, told Cooper that in ninth grade, his two best friends began bullying him to boost their own social status. "They physically abused me, mentally abused me, emotionally abused me," he said. "I'll admit it. I thought of suicide."
The study found that incidents of aggression are more prevalent than many would expect in this affluent suburb of New York City. Fifty-six percent of students surveyed were involved in aggression, victimization or both. The research also found that most of the behavior is occurring below the radar of adults, with 81% percent of aggressive incidents never reported.
The school's principal, Sean Feeney, recognizes there's a problem.
"It breaks my heart when they keep that all inside and we're not aware of it," he said. "Every high school has to deal with bullying. Every high school has to deal with drugs and alcohol. ... Just because we are in an absolutely wonderful school district ... kids don't have a pass on those just because they're affluent and high-achieving."
The school district has anti-bullying programs from kindergarten through 12th grade, assemblies throughout the year, and a peer-to-peer program where older students talk to younger students about the dangers of bullying -- and yet, the problem seems pervasive.
What intrigues Faris about Wheatley is that the school isn't the exception, but seems to be the rule. The results of the study mirror earlier research he did at rural schools in North Carolina. The economic, geographic and racial demographics could not be more different, but the findings were largely the same. Faris said he believes the study has discovered some universal truths.
"Family background of kids does not really seem to matter in their aggressive behavior. Instead, what really matters is where they are located in the school hierarchy," Faris said. He said he believes the patterns, "arise in a wide range of schools across the country regardless of what community they may be in."
The study made two breakthroughs that give Faris reason for hope. The first discovery is that aggressive behavior, on the whole, does not actually work to elevate kids' social status. "We've found that by and large, on average, the more aggressive you are, it doesn't have an effect on how likely you are to climb the social ladder later on."
The second discovery is that behavior is contagious. When students are aggressive, there's a higher likelihood that their friends will become aggressive. But Faris said, "there's also the possibility that positive behaviors can also spread through social networks and that kids may be more likely to intervene in bullying situations if they see their friends stepping in to stop things, or if they see their friends discouraging that kind of behavior."
Faris said he thinks educating students that bullying is not only destructive but also ineffective could be key to helping end the problem.