It’s really not surprising to read the results of a new study linking bullies and popularity. If bullying didn’t get the reaction the person who is bullying wanted (popularity) it wouldn’t be the problem it is. 

For the study, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, surveyed nearly 1,900 students in 99 classes at 11 Los Angeles middle schools. The surveys, conducted at different points during grades 7 and 8, asked the participants to name the students who were considered the "coolest" and the ones who were bullies.

Participants were also asked to name the most aggressive students. Results showed that the same children named as the “coolest”, or most popular, were the same ones who were named as most aggressive. The findings linked the popularity of kids to bullying.

"The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool," study lead author Jaana Juvonen, a professor of psychology, said in a UCLA news release. "What was particularly interesting was that the form of aggression, whether highly visible and clearly confrontational or not, did not matter. Pushing or shoving and gossiping worked the same for boys and girls."

Many schools are now providing anti-bullying programs, but for those to be effective, the study suggests that the programs need to be subtle and sophisticated.

"A simple message, such as 'bullying is not tolerated,' is not likely to be very effective" when bullying often increases a student's popularity, Juvonen noted in the news release.

She suggested that effective anti-bullying programs might need to be aimed at the bystanders, who play an important role and can either encourage or discourage bullying. Bystanders need to be made aware of the harm that bullying can do, she said.

Do all kids who bully mean to be hurtful? Not necessarily. Sometimes they are seeking a way to fit in. Their lives might be driven by insecurity and fear and the idea of not being part of the “cool” group is enough for them to strike first before being stricken. They may simply think they are being funny.  If they can make someone laugh, they’re in.

Unfortunately, the laughter isn’t a two way street.  The child being laughed at doesn’t get the benefit of fitting in with the kids laughing, instead they get to be humiliated and left to pick up the pieces of their shattered self-esteem.

Do some bullies know exactly what they are doing to others? Yes, and they like it.  They get exactly the reaction they want. Another child’s feelings are hurt and the bully feels superior. They have validation that they are powerful.  They get that validation from others who support them by either saying or doing nothing. They are rewarded when others join in the tormenting or by acceptance from others who laugh and play along. People bully because they get something they want from it.

Kids who go along with bullying are often afraid they will become the next target if they don’t. And quite frankly, that’s likely to happen. 

How is bullying stopped?  Many experts who work in the child protection and development field are working on those solutions right now.  There are, currently, good programs set up in schools that are helping to reduce bullying and giving a voice to children who have or are being bullied. Sometimes personal testimonials can enlighten others to the damage that bullying does. 

I think an important key is reaching the bystanders; kids who are afraid or too nervous to say or do anything when they witness bullying.  A bully has no power if they don’t have support. When the numbers turn in the other direction and more kids stand up to them than stand by them, they’ll think twice before lashing out. 

Popularity is a strange thing. It’s often fleeting. You can be at the top of the list one day and the bottom the next. You can also be at the bottom and rise to the top in an unexpected moment. That holds true for people at any age.

Personally, I think that there are far more children who are compassionate, empathetic, loving and kind than those who get their self-value from hurting others.

The former are thoughtful kids who need guidance to help them band together and take a stand. They need leaders who understand what they are up against and can offer real life solutions to real life situations. Without support, bullies just aren’t very “cool.”

The study was released online in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.