The Truth About High School Social Hierarchies

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A new study fundamentally changes the way we think about bullying and who gets picked on and why. (Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock)

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. 


Emily Bazelon

Produced by:

Arwa Gunja and Mythili Rao


T.J. Raphael

Comments [9]

Susan from Manhattan

You're looking at the wrong school. Middle school is where this all begins.
And, having a stable family helps.
I had an emotionally abusive family life. I still feel like I am in middle school, like an outsider, like I have to try and fit in...and never will.
And I am almost 40.
It's hard to overcome.

Apr. 09 2014 03:29 PM
Cyndi from FL

I didn't get the physical bullying after elementary school. It turned into the nasty verbal and emotional bullying when we got to Jr and Sr high school. I grew up in a small town so the people didn't change when you moved from Jr to Sr. At 16, when I was given the opportunity to move away from home (a half a continent away), I thought nothing of starting a new school for my senior year. Sure I was leaving my friends but all I could see was escape and freedom.
Crappy people were still there for the 10yr but I was so far beyond that, it became comical. By the time the 20th came around most of those people had finally grown up. Still, one woman, the queen bee of the cliques in my grade, she scowled at me at the 10th and then scowled at everyone at the 20th. I plan on screwing up my courage at the 25th and asking her why she shows up just to scowl at us. She drives 3+hrs to do it. To say that her and her side kick made my life miserable is an understatement. Thanks to her, most of the girls in my grade didn't speak to me from 8th-11th grade. Her and her side kick used to call me "lovely" names under their breath if I dared to pass them in the hall.
Regardless of how she looked down on me during school, I'm going to bet that since I don't walk around scowling at people that perhaps I won the competition she was playing in her head.

Apr. 09 2014 02:36 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I was popular with the Nerds and the Jocks in High School. I was a quarterback and the Assistant Managing Editor of the paper. Interestingly enough, I still see the world in High School terms in the work place. I never really got the resentments and problems that other kids and now grownups have with each other.
And now you all can hate me too.

Apr. 09 2014 02:35 PM
Enrique Cerna from Seattle

I'm going to be 61 in July, but all these years later I am still angry about the bullying I experienced in high school. I am dark-skinned and Mexican-American. In high school, the bullies would make demeaning comments about my skin color. It got to be point where I would avoid walking down certain hallways when they were around. The weird thing was some of the guys were close friends of mind. Away from school they never bullied me, and when I asked them why they would, they would always say they were just kidding around. Their comments hurt and still bother me. I've thought about contacting them and letting them know how painful that was and how it still is painful. Would it be worth doing so?

Apr. 09 2014 01:33 PM

Elementary and middle school were the tougher times for me. I had several small groups of friends, but seemed to cycle through them quickly as they sought to climb the social ladder and left me behind at the bottom. I wouldn't say the bullying I experienced was super traumatic, and when I ended it by fighting back in middle school, it gave me a bit more confidence that things didn't have to suck.

In high school, my social experience improved dramatically. I was lucky to go to a high school like the ideal Emily described. It was large (about 2,000 students) and had many social niches. I never considered myself popular at the time, but looking back on it, I was kind of Queen of the Nerds. I had friends in every social group, mainly by virtue of being nice to everyone. In contrast to Cherie, my experience was probably made easier by my older sibling attending the same school. Likewise, when my younger sister entered as a freshman during my senior year, she seemed to benefit greatly from my existing social network and positive reputation with the teachers.

Apr. 09 2014 01:18 PM
Cherie Tindall from Washington

So, what happens when the bully at high school is a teacher? My 10th grade first period science teacher is personally responsible (in my mind) for me quitting high school. I had an older brother who went to that school before me and was constantly in trouble and was a huge jerk. I, on the other hand, was a quiet, respectful, shy wallflower sort of person, but when I went to Mr Moritz's class he would act very hostile toward me and make fun of me in front of the other students. So much so that I started skipping his class every day, which I had never before done in my entire life. I ended up dropping out of school because it was too painful for me to attend his class and I couldn't get transferred out.
I did end up going back to school much later in life, and have earned my Bachelor's and a Master's if he was trying to ruin me, it didn't work :)

Apr. 09 2014 12:48 PM
Jeremy from Seattle

The bullying in my experience was so bad that I lost all fear of a judeo-christian hell, However, as an adult my concern is the educational cost of constant abuse. The grueling abuse of high school made education impossible. Important lessons like the usefulness of higher math, the structure of the scientific world, the tapestry of human art and literature and the computer skills that establish my career were all learned later in life. As a successful adult, I regard high school as a completely wasted period of bullying and little else.

Apr. 09 2014 12:48 PM
Jerry from O'Fallon, MO

High School cliques in the early 70s consisted basically of the "jocks" and the "heads." I had friends in both camps. I wasn't a successful jock (one season of wrestling) and I wasn't a head (didn't even smoke pot) but on a whim I put up two signs for the senior class president election and won. Even now, forty years later, I have friends from all walks of life.

Apr. 09 2014 12:30 PM
Ed from Larchmont

One necessary thing is a solid family life.

Apr. 09 2014 09:34 AM

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