Two girls cyberbullying another girl in school
Published on: Feb 24, 2021

Adolescents and teens may be more likely to be bullied by their friends — and friends-of-friends — than classmates they don’t know as well, according to a new study.

Diane Felmlee, distinguished professor of sociology and demography at Penn State and researcher on the paper, said the findings give new insight into how and why bullying occurs — important information for anti-bullying efforts.

“People often assume that bullying occurs between relative strangers, or that it targets those on the fringes of the social network,” Felmlee said. “Those do occur, but in our study, we find that the rate of peer aggression is significantly higher between those students who are closely linked. Furthermore, our finding is not due to friends simply spending more time together, nor is it only animosity between former friends. Even those whose friendship continued over the school year were more likely to bully those friends.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 20% of students ages 12 to 18 report being bullied at school during the school year. And while many anti-bullying programs exist, the researchers said they are not always effective.

“One reason that bullying prevention programs often fall short is they may not account for the fact that popularity contests common in high school tend to encourage peer bullying,” Felmlee said. “Bullies who are popular use cruelty to gain attention and status, and that form of bullying remains particularly difficult to stem.”

For the study, Felmlee and coauthors Bob Faris — professor at UC Davis — and Cassie McMillan, an assistant professor at Northeastern University who recently earned her doctorate in sociology and demography at Penn State, used data from more than 3,000 students.

The dataset was collected in waves, starting when the students were in grades six, seven and eight and finishing when they were in grades eight, nine and 10, respectively. 

The researchers constructed “aggression networks” by asking students to nominate up to five classmates who had picked on or been mean to them, allowing the researchers to identify both bullies and victims. Participants also were asked to identify their friends at each wave, allowing the researchers to track friendships over time. In addition, the researchers measured anxiety, depression and how positively attached the students felt to their school.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that peer aggression occurred at higher rates between friends, and friends-of-friends, than between those not closely tied. One of the students who reported being the victim of a friend noted, “Sometimes your own friends bully you. I don’t understand why, why my friends do this to me.”

Additionally, participants who were friends in the fall of the school year were over three times as likely to bully or victimize the other by the spring of the same school year. Being bullied by a friend was also linked to significant increases in anxiety and depression, and lower levels of school attachment.

The researchers argue that this friend-on-friend bullying can be a deliberate way to try to compete for social status.

“These conflicts likely arise between young people who are eyeing the same spot on the team, club, or vying for the same best friend or romantic partner,” Felmlee said. “Those who are closely linked in the school social network are apt to encounter situations in which they are rivals for identical positions and social ties.”

Felmlee said the results — recently published in the American Journal of Sociology — could assist not only in improving bullying prevention programs, but also help bullying victims cope by knowing they’re not alone.

“Many adolescents may not be aware of how common friend-to-friend bullying is,” Felmlee said. “Knowing that they are not alone in such an experience could be reassuring. Plus, a better understanding of the social processes that underlie aggression among ‘frenemies’ could aid parents and school counselors in attempting to help young victims and their bullies.”

The National Science Foundation helped support this research.