“Not all bullies are ‘losers’ or outcasts. Some are very popular. Research reveals that some of the most intense bullying that takes place at school comes from dominant social groups – like athletes – who may have the implicit tolerance of adults in what they do, and sometimes may even have their overt support.” – Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 72)
Sometimes bullies are the cool kids, especially when it comes to the bullies one tends to encounter in junior high or high school. According to a 2000 survey by the Empower Program, 36% of kids felt that those students with the most influence engaged in bullying or intimidation of others “all the time” or “frequently,” and another 32% said they did so “occasionally.” (Wiseman, 2009) In fact, bullying by the ‘cool’ kids may be the norm. In a 2013 study of thousands of middle school students, psychologist Jaana Juvonen and her colleagues found that bullies are frequently perched at the top of the social hierarchy, and bully others as a means to secure their position or keep others below them. (Svoboda, 2014)
These perpetrators are attractive, athletic, and generally get good grades while getting along well with adults. they also tend to be highly narcissistic, and are master manipulators. They know how to fly under the radar and can be so subtle and cunning that it’s hard for school staff to recognize them as bullies. Some may have school officials wrapped around their finger and can readily convince teachers and staff that they are actually the victim in all of this.
Many studies have linked popularity to relational aggression – spreading gossip, taunting, etc. (Paul, 2011) Popular kids may come to feel they are privileged. Like the spoiled child who grows up having everyone tell them how wonderful they are in every regard, popular kids can grow accustomed to everyone bending to their every will. As such, they become far less tolerant of others in general.
Popular bullies & why not all popularity is the same
Researchers make a distinction between two types of popularity: perceived popularity (social prominence) and sociometric popularity (how well liked a child is). These two types of popularity don’t always overlap, and many of the ‘popular’ teens are actually considered stuck up by their peers. (Paul, 2011)
Popular bullies tend to fall into the first category of popularity. They may have plenty of social prominence among their peers but can still be less admired or liked than other kids overall. It’s a kind of illusional popularity; one based on being a narcissist or good looking or having other characteristics that people are fascinated with. But it’s a popularity that is disconnected from a youth’s character or personality. This is an important point to make when dealing with kids who are the victims of popular bullies: Popularity isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. When they’re cursing how cruel it is that the kids who seem to have it all can enjoy greater gratification by taunting and picking on the socially downtrodden, remind them of this. There is fake popularity and real popularity, and only one is attained through cruelty. So their tormentor may not be as well-liked as they appear to be.
The victims of popular bullies
Popular bullies can be puzzling to kids. In her discussions on bullying prevention, Rosalind Wiseman states that girls “are more interested in knowing why the definition of good popularity doesn’t describe the popular girls they know. Very quickly, the questions start to fly: Why are popular girls so mean? Why is everyone so afraid of them? No one likes the most popular girl, so why does she have the most friends?” (Wiseman, 2009, p. 24) Kids often describe these girls by saying “she’s the meanest to everyone” or “people live in fear of her” or “she has all the power and she’ll crush you.” (ibid)
Children who are the victims of popular bullies face what is perhaps the most difficult bullying situation imaginable. First, popular bullies have lots of shallow friends who follow the leader, so a victim may feel like they’re up against half the school. It’s not just the instigator they have to worry about, but the legions of his or her associates, too.
Secondly, the torment that popular bullies dish out can be especially hurtful. We judge our social world relative to others. It’s not as much skin off our back to have an enemy who is despised by many others. It’s quite another to be despised yourself or be enemies with someone who appears to be well-liked and admired by everyone. When it appears that you’re hated by someone everyone else likes, it makes every cutting remark cut that much deeper.
Finally, popular bullies tend to be manipulative and often have school staff on their side. Worse yet, many schools subtly (or even explicitly) condone bullying by popular kids, particularly in high school. High schools often promote a clique mentality that tends to treat certain groups like royalty. They are the jocks, the football stars, the entitled. You’ll find many high school teachers who see bullying as a privilege of popularity – something the elite are bound to do – and thus have no problem with it. Some may be former school jocks themselves who identify with the bullies and show antipathy towards the victims. So when a child is being relentlessly bullied by a popular bully, it can quite literally feel like the whole world is against them.