New research shows that bullies are often friends

Remedies must honor the complex social dynamics of adolescence.

New research shows that bullies are often friends
Photo: rawpixel / Adobe Stock
  • Bullies are likely to be friends according to new research published in the American Journal of Sociology.
  • The researchers write that complex social dynamics among adolescents allow the conditions for intragroup dominance.
  • The team uses the concept of "frenemies" to describe the relationship between many bullies and victims.

Where do your enemies come from? That's the topic of a new article published in the American Journal of Sociology, which investigates school bullying, a social phenomenon that affects millions of children every year. Despite the belief that bullies are existential foes, it turns out that the bully and bullied are likely to be friends—at least, "frenemies."

Looking at 14 middle and high schools at two points in the year, the research team of Robert Faris, Diane Felmlee, and Cassie McMillan concluded that social proximity is not enough of a reason to abandon status elevation. Kids often climb over those closest to them in order to acquire greater standing in their networks—a power play that has adverse mental health effects on the bullied.

Their analysis began by comparing two parallel cohorts that create linear dominance hierarchies: chickens and summer campers. This game of dominance and ritualized submission is apparent in the barnyard and by the forest lake, as well as in high school, places where "overt aggression is not the only means by which status is attained." Prom queens, they note, "do not fight their way to their thrones." Subtler forms of bullying are often recruited.

Common wisdom has it that balance theory—the idea that enemies and friends share distinct social spaces—defines much of adolescent posturing. Not so, says this team: positive and negative ties are not as far apart as you might imagine. That's where the concept of "frenemies" comes in. Cruelty is a strange bonding tool that serves the purpose of status elevation, at least for the bully.

"In contrast to both balance theory and much of the empirical literature on bullying, which concludes that victims are isolated or marginal and thus sit at relatively large social distances from their tormentors, we extend the logic of instrumental aggression to anticipate higher rates of aggression at low social distances, between friends and among structurally equivalent schoolmates."

School Bullying: Are We Taking the Wrong Approach?

Femlee, a sociology professor at Penn State, says her study offers important insights into why bullying occurs—and, potentially, leaves clues for how to combat it. Her team found peer aggression to be much higher among students that are proximal to one another, either through friendship or social circles. Bullying does not end friendships, she says; they persist over the long-term, with the bullied maintaining ties to their tormentors.

Looking at a data set of over 3,000 students—at least half were either bullier or victim—the researchers asked students to choose five classmates that had been mean to them, then analyzed these networks while racking levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. As one student remarked, "Sometimes your own friends bully you. I don't understand why, why my friends do this to me."

Femlee elaborates on the complex dynamics of adolescence:

"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. 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."

Photo: motortion / Adobe Stock

They note that strained friendships are more likely to produce dominance behavior and power differentials than close ties. Punching down is common, especially between students of the same gender, race, and grade. The race for recognition seems to necessitate close racial and gender ties. "Frenemies" usually result from one member of a group victimizing another in an attempt at clawing their way to the top of the network.

This competition can have lifelong effects, such as reducing the bullied's chances of developing intimate relationships. The authors note that most bullying prevention programs fail becuase, in part, "aggressive behavior accrues social rewards and does so to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends."

Such programs tend to focus on a fraction of bullying dynamics, such as empathy deficits and emotional dysregulation. They fail to take into account the complex social dynamics of being a teenager. The authors believe coopting status contents and changing the behavior of high-status youths could have downline effects. Instead of dismantling hierarchies, they recommend recognizing status is intrinsic to group fitness instead of pretending the struggle to the top is an aberration. Only then can you create structural change.

Friends, they conclude, can be the problem but also offer the solution. Aiming for enduring friendships instead of backstabbing frenemies is a tall order but it could impact the tragedy of bullying—and the emotional carnage it leaves in its wake.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.


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