Paging Hollywood Movie Writers: Popular Teens Get Bullied Too

Press Pause on everything you learned from watching 'Pretty in Pink' and 'Mean Girls.'

Matthew Broderick, Mia Sara, and Alan Ruck from 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.' (Photo: Paramount/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s a tried-and-true Hollywood plot: An unpopular high school student (he or she is always different—but different in a cool way we can relate to) gets totally bullied by the popular kids. Pretty in Pink? Check. Mean Girls? Check. At the end, the bullied character gives a moving speech à la Revenge of the Nerds, encouraging all those who’ve “ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down,” to be proud of who they are. And then the bullies, who’ve learned their lesson, are humbled. And scene.

But based on the results of a new study in the latest issue of American Sociological Review, Tinseltown writers might need to revise their teen movie scripts. Researchers have found that as both male and female teens become more popular, their chances of being bullied increase more than 25 percent.   

It’s hard to imagine Ferris Bueller, arguably the world’s most popular high school student ever, (or Sloane Peterson, his perfect girlfriend) being on the receiving end of bullying. Harassed by Principal Rooney? Yes. The object of gossip and ridicule from his peers? It’s a scenario we’ve been led to believe is impossible.

Yet Robert Faris, lead author of the report and an associate professor at the University of California, Davis, told USA Today that popular kids are the “unnoticed victims of school-based aggression.”

Faris’ team studied more than 4,000 high schoolers from 19 public schools in North Carolina. It asked the students to identify five teens they “picked on or were mean to” and five teens who picked on them. From that data the researchers found that, yes, kids who have traditionally been picked on for being different—low-income students, nerds, LGBTQ teens, and youths of color—are most definitely bullied. Even students with food allergies have been bullied.

The researchers also found, however, that as students become more popular and their status grows, they start being targeted by their rivals. The so-called “cool” kids come under fire because their “outcast” peers want to flip the script and be the ones seen as popular. And in our schools, bullying someone else is often seen as a surefire way to become a part of the in crowd.

The drama—high school students rarely call it "bullying” because that's for kindergartners—can get so intense that teens stop wanting to go to school. Every day 160,000 K–12 children stay home from school because they’re afraid they’ll be bullied.

What’s especially tough for popular kids is that the higher up you are in the high school food chain, the harder the fall into social obscurity. That means someone who was the head cheerleader but ends up violating “the unwritten rules of high school life,” said Faris, has “more anger, anxiety, and depression from a single incident of bullying than the less popular students.”

The bottom line: Schools need to cut the one-off bullying assemblies and get serious about implementing ongoing empathy-building programs. And neither schools nor parents should assume that because a teen is the star quarterback, the cheerleading squad captain, or Ferris Bueller, bullying is therefore not a factor. 

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