Everyone loves a bully; middle school tormentors win the popularity contest

Everyone loves a bully; middle school tormentors win the popularity contest

Elizabeth Svoboda

WEDGIE-GIVING KEARNEY ON THE Simpsons is the kind of kid we consider most likely to steal lunch money: a lumbering hulk who empties his victim’s pockets and then punches his lights out. Such stereotypes are off the mark, however, according to University of California-Los Angeles psychologist Jaana Juvonen. Her study found that kids who harass other kids typically aren’t outcasts with low self-esteem. In fact, they tend to be better adjusted socially than the average middle school student, challenging the common assumption that bullies need ego boosters.

When Juvonen and her colleagues surveyed nearly 2,000 sixth-graders in the Los Angeles area, they found that bullies were consistently among the most liked and respected kids in school. “Bullies are psychologically strong and very popular among their peers,” Juvonen says. “This peer status is important in terms of boosting their well-being. It’s disturbing to think that bullies are feeling really good about themselves.” Other bullying experts, including psychologist Dan Olweus of Norway’s University of Bergen, applaud efforts to dispel the myth that bullies are anxious and insecure. Instead, habitual bullying behavior is self-reinforcing: When kids find that putting others down earns them approval from their peers, they are likely to do it again and again.

How should parents and teachers approach the news that tormentors are more likely to star in football games rather than hang out alone after school? Juvonen thinks that intervention must address a social system that privileges bullies, rather than simply targeting individual perpetrators. “No matter how you teach bullies to see their world differently, the rewards of the behavior are still there once they step back into the schoolyard,” Juvonen says. Teaching children not to applaud antagonizers by giving them attention can change social expectations and norms. “Empowering them to intervene in bullying situations would be by far the most effective strategy.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group