But "everyone" got it wrong, according to Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology whose decade of groundbreaking research on mean kids and their hapless victims is changing the way parents and schools think about bullying.
Most bullies have almost ridiculously high levels of self-esteem, Juvonen’s research has found. What’s more, they are viewed by their fellow students and even by teachers not as pariahs but as popular — in fact, as some of the coolest kids at school.
Juvonen shared highlights of her myth-busting research earlier this week with a rapt audience of faculty and staff colleagues at the Faculty Center as this year’s featured lecturer in the Emerging Research Series. A collaborative effort among the Academic Senate, Staff Assembly and Campus Human Resources, the series began four years ago as a way to bring faculty and staff together for an engaging, educational forum.
Bullying — which runs the gamut from physical aggression to the spreading of nasty rumors via cyberbullying — is a a subject of growing public concern. Yet Juvonen recalled that when she and her UCLA colleagues began their research a decade ago, "it was very much a challenge for us to convince our audiences that bullying is a problem. Ten years ago — and even today in some parts of the country and in some families — there was a belief that bullying is just part of growing up … and that these experiences are even needed [by the victims] because they ‘help build character.’"
To the contrary, she said, "we have learned that bullying can have devastating consequences" — most tragically, those cases where victims of bullying have committed suicide.
Given such grim realities, how can there possibly be a connection between bullying and popularity? Juvonen and her colleagues came upon this intriguing dynamic in a study of more than 2,000 sixth graders from ethnically diverse public middle schools in the Los Angeles area. Students and teachers were asked to identify [anonymously] which kids were the bullies and who were the victims. But the students and teachers were also asked — without knowing who had already been named as bullies and victims — to identify the most and least popular kids. That’s where it got interesting.
The research found that "bullies are, by far, the coolest kids," Juvonen said. "And the victims, in turn, are very uncool."
Digging deeper, the researchers expanded their observations to 4th and 5th graders in elementary school and 6th, 7th and 8th graders in middle schoolers. The bully-coolness connection, they found, is virtually nonexistent in elementary school and suddenly appears in the sixth grade, the first year of middle school.
"Clearly, there’s something about the school environment that makes bullies more valued among their peers in sixth grade," said Juvonen. That "something," she speculated, has to do with the turbulence of transition. "Think about all the changes that kids go through when they transfer from elementary school to middle school. The school not only becomes an average seven times larger than their elementary school, but now they go from one [class] period to the next, having a different teacher in each and also different classmates."
Floundering and frightened, not knowing where they fit in "probably calls forth a primal tendency to rely on dominance behaviors," Juvonen suggested. The bigger, stronger kids create a social hierarchy and appoint themselves the leaders. The bullies are clearly in charge, gaining power and status that translate to a bigtime ego boost.
Juvonen answers questions from Becky Spiro, on staff at the UCLA Library as a photo cataloguer, after the lecture.Juvonen and her colleagues have also taken a close look at the victims of bullies: Friendless and lonely, they don’t know how to say ‘Stop it!’ when a bully attacks. Worse still, many victims blame themselves, imagining that there must be something inherently wrong with them for this to be happening.
All this, Juvonen said, can add up to a vicious cycle. The shy kid who gets picked on, for example, becomes even more withdrawn. When bullied, he responds submissively and becomes increasingly vulnerable. Eventually he reaches the point where "he starts showing all over his face and all over his body that he is indeed a good target, just waiting to be pounced on."
Schools have had success with policing and disciplining individual bullies, Juvonen said. "But bullying is not a problem of specific individuals. Bullying is a collective problem. We need to address the social dynamics.
"Bullies can stop being bullies, and victims can stop being victims," Juvonen said. "What we’ve learned is that these are temporary social roles, not permanent personality characteristics."
Teachers and school administrators, she suggested, might start by thinking differently — even empathetically — about bullies. "Think if there might be another way to provide them with a sense of control and power other than being mean to others," she suggested. "I’ve seen some very clever teachers do that. When they see a kid who’s constantly on the case of other kids, these clever teachers give this kid a special role" that channels the bully’s energies more positively.
Schools should also do a better job of helping the victims, who are often forgotten in the larger drama of reining in the bullies. "Victims can learn new ways to perceive their plight and their suffering," Juvonen said, "realizing that it’s not something about them that causes this" and developing effective social skills.
Helping kids — bullies and victims alike — foster friendships can also make a difference.
"We have not come to appreciate the power of friendships," Juvonen said. "Sometimes school administrators and teachers really think that friendships among kids are a nuisance. They want to separate friends because they’re causing trouble."
For lonely kids with a propensity for becoming victims, having just one friend may be enough to protect them.
"We have to start thinking about meaningful buddy programs that connect them with somebody," Juvonen said, "to make sure that there’s somebody at the school who says ‘Hi!’ in the morning rather than punching them."