Ahhh, high school. Cue the drone of Mrs. McGrail’s math lesson, the smell of that old gymnasium and the ferocious desire to be popular.
In the wake of a number of stories about the devastating effects bullying can have on young people, a study out of the University of California Davis published in the February edition of The American Sociological Review has found that the phenomena of high school aggression is far more complex than the old model of maladjusted teen lashing out at an easy, weaker target. Most school aggression, rather, is an attempt by teens to improve their social status and occurs within their own social spheres.
”What we found was, the more status a kid had in the fall the more aggression they had in the spring — unless they were in the very, very, very top of the hierarchy and those kids on average were the least aggressive in the school,” Robert Faris, an assistant professor of sociology at U.C. Davis and the study’s author, told The Daily Caller. “The kids at the bottom and the top are the least aggressive. For the most part an increase in status would be associated with an increase in aggression…But we didn’t find that overall aggressiveness increased status.”
According to Faris, though aggression does not necessarily increase status, it is entirely possible that aggression toward certain peers is associated with a status increase. In other words, if a child goes after a higher status child, that might yield some benefits. But, the fact is, it doesn’t matter whether aggressive social tactics work, but rather whether kids think such tactics works.
Indeed, based on a study Faris expects to publish in the near future, the more kids care about being popular, the more aggressive they are. Further, regardless of how much they care about status, if they have friends who care about being popular, they will be more likely to be aggressive.
Under this model, school aggression might be beneficial in the sense that it allows young people an early introduction to the status jockeying adults know all too well. Faris, however, is quick to note that there is a difference between cruelty and merely learning to be good at conflict resolution.
“Learning how to manage conflict and stand up for yourself is very important,” said Faris. “We’re talking about being mean and cruel, so I am not sure that has pro-social functions. We are not talking about playful teasing. It could take very different forms from physical violence to spreading rumors on the Internet….There is difference between cruelty and conflict.”
Faris’ research may have implications for how teachers and schools can confront inter-child cruelty in the future. While he says that his research is more about understanding the phenomena so that others can find preventative methods, he notes that his study does offer a different way to look at these childhood struggles.
“In our case the strongest predictors of aggressive behavior were kids’ position in the hierarchy and the hierarchy is built by kids who are not aggressive, so they hold the power in these schools,” he said. “So I think any intervention, if you are interested in systemic changes in school cultures, it would be rather than to focus on bullies or victims of aggressive kids — which I think is important — but I think I would put primary attention on the kids who are not involved and are witnessing it or encouraging it or failing to discourage it.”
Harnessing the potential goodwill of the most popular and the least popular kids in school, it would seem, could be the key to lessening the power of adolescent aggression.
“That is another potential area for leadership and intervention. Those kids have a whole lot of influence and they could potentially have a big role in changing school culture,” said Faris.