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Why Do Youth Bully? The Answer Isn't Simple

Popular kids bully. Happy kids bully. Nice kids bully. Kids who are not abused, not hurting and not sad, bully, and we cannot stop bullying unless we recognize its complex nature and the role it plays for all youth.
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A recent viral video features actor Wil Wheaton explaining why youth bully:

When a person makes fun of you, when a person is cruel to you, it has nothing to do with you. It's not about what you said; it's not about what you did; it's not about what you love. It's about them feeling bad about themselves. They feel sad. They don't get positive attention from their parents. They don't feel as smart as you... So they take that out on you because they can't take it out on the person that's actually hurting them.

Like many, Wil Wheaton assumes the reason youth bully is because they themselves are victims -- of abuse, of lack of support, of something that is making them hurt, feel bad and be sad. While true of many youth who bully, this limited lens through which we see bullying blinds us to the many more complex and nuanced reasons youth bully.

In 2011, Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee found in a groundbreaking study of more than 4,200 students in North Carolina that in fact the most aggressive youth are those highly "central" in their social networks (but not the most central). Centrality refers to how many connections an individual has in his or her social network -- or in other words, their popularity. The most well-adjusted, seemingly happy, popular youth are in fact the most likely to be "bullies." In a follow-up paper published just last week, Faris and Felmlee also find that this same group of nearly-popular kids are the ones most likely to be bullied and be highly affected by this bullying.

So how does this fit within our preconceived notion that the kids who bully are "hurting" and "sad?" Perhaps these youth are remarkable at hiding it, able to maintain friendships and connections while putting others down, but I argue that this is likely overly simplistic. Instead, we have to consider that maybe the bullying (and I should note here, Faris and Felmlee deliberately avoided using the term bullying out of concern for missing the broader picture) is a tool in adolescents' social game.

When children begin to enter adolescence many things change both physically and socially. Most pertinent to this discussion, peer relationships begin to take a new importance, replacing the previous importance of relationships with parents and other adults. Status is everything to many teens and many will do anything to belong. This, combined with the adolescent's lack of a fully developed frontal cortex making them think they're invincible, is why the drive to engage in delinquent behavior -- whether drug use, sexual activity or other defiance -- is so strong in adolescence and why simply telling youth to say "no" to these behaviors does little to discourage them. Teens fear the rejection they might face if they don't engage.

When it comes to bullying's or aggression's role in maintaining social status, a long history of sociological theory tells us that to define the bounds of a group, someone must be outside of that group (see for instance the writings of Simmel and Coser.) Since a teen's greatest fear is ending up the one on the periphery, it follows that they have incentive to push others down. Aggression serves a specific and real social function driven by the need to belong.

This is not to say that bullying is okay, rather that we have to understand that youth do not simply bully because they feel bad about themselves. In order to truly address bullying, we need to understand its role as a social tool in addition to the harm it causes.

Our stereotype about what bullying is and who engages in bullying behavior further affects our response. Many people who have bullied report that their schools failed to address bullying because those who were bullying were popular or well-liked. One such story is that of my mentor and former Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education, Kevin Jennings, who wrote in his memoir that after reporting bullying to his principal, the principal retorted that he knew the students Kevin identified, and did not believe they could do that.

Popular kids bully. Happy kids bully. Nice kids bully. Kids who are not abused, not hurting and not sad, bully, and we cannot stop bullying unless we recognize its complex nature and the role it plays for all youth. We have to help change the social norms of aggression and provide support for all youth, whether they are bullying out of hurt or the need to belong, whether they are being bullied or whether they witness it every day.

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