Bullying is unfortunately a timeless and universal phenomenon, and more pervasive than ever in the age of social media. Research remains critical to understanding the subject, and Diane Felmlee, distinguished professor of sociology and demography in the College of the Liberal Arts, is right at the forefront.
Felmlee, along with her former graduate student, Cassie McMillan, and Robert Faris, professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, were recently awarded the American Journal of Sociology’s (AJS) 2022 Roger V. Gould Prize for their article, “With Friends Like These: Aggression from Amity and Equivalence.”
McMillan, who received her doctorate in sociology in 2020, is now an assistant professor of sociology and criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.
Chosen out of all the papers published in AJS between January 2020 and November 2021, the article explores the prevalence of bullying amongst adolescent peers. The AJS editors selected the paper because “it most closely embodies those qualities — theoretically rich, lucidly written, and empirically rigorous — that made Roger’s own work outstanding in sociology.”
“I was surprised, and very pleased to receive the award,” Felmlee said. “I was especially thrilled for Cassie — this is a great achievement for her career.”
Several years in the making, the study came out of previous research Felmlee, McMillan and Faris had done on bullying. The team analyzed data compiled for a study on adolescent substance use conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina.
Felmlee and her coauthors found that teens tend to use interpersonal aggression and bullying to gain status and climb the social hierarchies of their high schools. On top of that, they’re more likely to bully their friends and mutual friends, since that type of behavior could lead to a boost in their social standing.
The team’s findings have received coverage in the media and on social media, including an article on Salon.com and a highly engaged Reddit post. Felmlee and Faris’s previous research on bullying received extensive coverage on CNN.
“Our argument is that bullying isn’t idiosyncratic. It’s not the typical factors applied to explain bullying, like the bully having personality defects or being anxious or coming from a bad family background,” Felmlee said.
“We found that peer aggression involves strategic means. Bullies are aiming to increase their social status, and they do that by harassing particular classmates. And if they pick on the 'right' people, they gain esteem with their schoolmates,” Felmlee continued. “It just so happens that bullying occurs more among friends and other socially equivalent classmates, because friends and friends of friends are competing for the same resources — the same friendships, the same social status, the same position on a team, the same boyfriend or girlfriend. This results in excessive bullying and targeting. And it’s not that most teens bully their friends — it’s that the risk and rate of bullying is higher among friends, and friends of friends.”
As Felmlee, McMillan and Faris analyzed the data, they discounted instances of mild teasing in favor of serious examples of bullying like online shaming and physical violence.
Combing through the open-ended responses in the dataset yielded plenty of fascinating insights for the researchers. For instance, close to half of the teens surveyed were either bullies or victims, and many were both, Felmlee said. And those who were victimized by their own friends found the experience to be especially distressing.
“I remember one of the teens saying, ‘Why oh why would a friend bully me?’ It seems it heightens the pain when a friend bullies a friend,” Felmlee said. “After all, who has the material to hurt you? The pictures to embarrass you? Friends have greater access to the tools to cause harm, and because they often compete with each other, a much higher motive. Bullying evolves as a group process in which perpetrators target victims close to them in the social hierarchy to gain attention and status in the school social ladder.”
More critically, Felmlee and her collaborators found that teens who had been victimized by friends had higher rates of depression and anxiety and lower school attachments. Thus, the study and subsequent research could prove highly useful in addressing the issue.
“Bullying represents an important topic to study. And I like that people can take something from this research to learn, change and grow,” Felmlee said. “This project involved years of work, but in the end, it was well worth the effort.”
McMillan said it was a pleasure to collaborate on the study with Felmlee, who served as the chair of her dissertation committee.
“In addition to being a leading scholar on social networks and bullying, Dr. Felmlee is also a terrific mentor,” McMillan said. “We've also collaborated on other research projects throughout the years. I've learned so much from working with her and there's no doubt that it equipped me with the necessary skills to succeed after graduating from Penn State. I received excellent training while completing my Ph.D. and I'm glad to have been part of such a collaborative department.”