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Do Kids Bully from Low Self-Esteem? Or Because they’re Popular? No and No

As Nadin Khoury walked home from school last January, a “wolf pack” of seven teens, aged 13 to 17, randomly attacked. As Nadin screamed for the boys to stop during his 30 minute nightmare, they kicked and punched him, hung him upside down from a tree, and ended by hanging Nadin from a six foot wrought iron fence.

Phoebe Prince’s horror began by merely dating a popular football player, provoking the wrath of “mean girl” rivals. “Irish slut” and “whore” began appearing on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. Threatening messages showed up in texts. The mean girls scribbled Phoebe’s face out of photographs on school walls, knocked books from her hands, and threw things at her as other students watched and did nothing.

After months of bullying, Phoebe went home and hanged herself.

Why do kids act so cruelly?

The old view suggested bullying arose from low self-esteem. By establishing dominance over someone, a brute could bridge the gap between the lowly place she sat and the supreme rank she desired.

But recent research finds that kids who bully are higher on the pecking order, leaving Time Magazine running a piece entitled, “Why Kids Bully: Because They’re Popular.”

Or as a Huffington Post commenter put it, “kids bully because they can.”

I question both notions.

Recent research destroys the low self-esteem hypothesis.

But what about this newer idea that kids bully because they are popular? Or that strong social support allows them to?

Is persecuting people fun, in itself, so that people do it just because they can? An awful lot of people get stressed harming others. Even very young children have a basic sense of justice which is based on whether one person is hurting another. Bullying probably serves some other purpose.

Why do some bully? The real answer seems an odd mix of the old and new explanations. The somewhat popular Mean Girl has to bridge a gap between where she sits and where she thinks she belongs. She wants to be seen as more socially dominant than she already is. If she felt secure at the top of the ladder, she wouldn’t need to work to gain her position.

Those at the very top have no gap to bridge. They actually avoid harassing others because they don’t want to signal insecurity and weakness, suggesting they need to prove something.

When people act aggressively to move up the hierarchy, they are doing what sociologists call “the social construction of personal identity.” When others witness our supremacy, it feels more real. It becomes “objective.” No surprise that Nadin Khoury’s tormentors taped the abuse and posted it on YouTube – which led to their arrest. I guess the risk seemed worth it (or they were too stupid to see the eventual outcome) since identities feel more objective when others witness our power.

How do we address the problem? Some suggest focusing on the kids who aren’t involved. Cultivating their empathy so they won’t stand idly by.

Perhaps encouraging more constructive sources of self-esteem would be useful.

Or, drawing attention to the (relative) insecurity of the bully might help, too.

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