Becoming more popular might have a downside for teens -- it may increase their risk of being bullied, researchers say.
It's well known that socially vulnerable teens -- such as those with delayed physical development, body-image issues or a lack of friends -- are at greater risk for being bullied. But these new findings suggest that many bullying victims don't fit the stereotype, said authors of the study, which appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.
"Most people probably would not think having a higher social status would increase the risk of being targeted, but with few exceptions, that's what we find," lead author Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, said in a journal news release.
"It's kind of a hidden pattern of victimization that is rooted in the competition for social status," he said.
The researchers analyzed data gathered during the 2004-05 school year from more than 4,200 eighth- to 10th-grade students at 19 public schools in North Carolina. Students who climbed in popularity from the middle range to the 95th percentile had a more than 25 percent increased risk of being bullied.
"But once students reach the very peak of the school hierarchy -- above the 95th percentile -- the likelihood of being victimized plummets," Faris said. "While the climb to the top of the social ladder can be painful, the very top rung offers a safe perch above the fray."
But in the rare cases in which a highly popular student is bullied, the negative effects -- such as anxiety, anger, depression and social exclusion -- are more severe, the researchers found.
"This may be because popular students feel like they have more to lose, since they may have worked quite hard to attain their social standing," Faris said. "Another possibility is that more popular students are more unsuspecting victims than those on the periphery, and therefore react particularly strongly."
Although these findings are from small-town and rural students in North Carolina, it's likely they would apply to teens in other places across the United States, Faris said.