One of the main barriers to putting in place anti-bullying policies in middle schools is the simple fact that middle-schoolers think bullies are cool. A recent study of 2,000 students at 11 middle schools around Los Angeles found that when students were asked to identify their most respected peers and those engaging in nasty behavior, the lists were often quite similar.
The students were surveyed in the spring of their 7th year and subsequently in the fall and spring of their 8th year. The researchers found that students who were named as the coolest in any of the three surveys were often also singled out as the most aggressive or the meanest in the other two.
“The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool,” study researcher Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA professor of psychology, said in a statement. “What was particularly interesting was that the form of aggression, whether highly visible and clearly confrontational or not, did not matter. Pushing or shoving and gossiping worked the same for boys and girls.”
This isn’t the first study that showed that kids of that age often viewed their most aggressive classmates as the ones most worth emulating. This study, however, also points to why many anti-bullying efforts fail at that age, since they don’t take into account the dynamic that makes kids admire and wish to be like the bullies around them.
A group of psychologists studied nearly 2,000 students at 11 middle schools in Los Angeles. They conducted surveys in the spring of 7th grade and the fall and spring of 8th grade, in which they asked the students to name their peers who were considered the “coolest,” as well as those who “start fights or push other kids around” and those who “spread nasty rumors about other kids.”
To tackle this disconnect, Juvonen said that a more subtle approach is called for. Instead of focusing on bullies, educators should look at influencing bystanders and asking them to step in or report incidents that they witness. It is important to let them know that doing nothing translates to tacit approval of this kind of behavior, making them in a way complicit in the abuse of other kids.
Additional research has shown that bullies are actually quite astute when choosing their victims. They are most likely to focus on those who are otherwise unpopular and unlikely to attract support from their peers.