The Truth About High School Social Hierarchies

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A new study fundamentally changes the way we think about bullying and who gets picked on and why.
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A new study from researchers at the University of California at Davis and Penn State shows that high school social hierarchies are much more complicated and nuanced than previously thought. The research drastically expands—and fundamentally changes—the way we think about bullying, who gets picked on, and why.

In particular, the study explores how social success can lead to unwanted negative attention, and shows that it's the popular kids who actually show the greatest signs of distress when they are victimized by their peers.

The researchers asked 4,200 students in 8th, 9th and 10th grades in North Carolina to name the five kids who were mean to them in the last three months. They asked these same students about their levels of depression, anger, anxiety, and distress, and mapped out where they fit on the school's social network. Researchers found that kids take down social rivals—and that it's those kids who are taken down that reported higher levels of distress. 

Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate and the author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” says this new research presents a more complex picture of the effects of "bullying" than most of us are used to.