Only the prom king and queen are safe.
Researchers say that the more popular teenagers are, except for those at the very apex of the fragile high school hierarchy, the more likely they are to be bullied, perhaps a surprise to people who presumed outcasts were the exclusive targets.
The researchers, Robert Faris of the University of California, Davis, and Diane Felmlee of Pennsylvania State University in the United States, write that traditional views of bullying, reported by nearly a fifth of teenagers, tell less than the whole story. "For most students, gains in status increase the likelihood of victimisation and the severity of its consequences," they wrote in the Journal of the American Sociological Association.
The aggressors, too, often "possess strong social skills", and bully others to move up the social ladder rather than to "re-enact their own troubled home lives".
So while the uppermost teens on the social scale can "afford" to be nice, those in the next tier have to keep themselves there, Faris said.
He and Felmlee looked at how status can increase the chances of being a victim and how it can magnify the distress caused, which can include depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
They wrote that "the ways in which status can increase risk have been largely ignored and we identify a new pattern of victimisation", which they call "instrumental targeting". And it could work, they said. "Evidence suggests that aggressors' campaigns of harassment and abuse are rewarded with increased prestige, particularly when they target socially prominent rivals."
Perhaps it should not be a surprise that popular children get targeted: if the tormentor is aiming to raise his or her own status, "targeting prominent rivals makes strategic sense", the researchers wrote. And for high-status victims, the fall can be more drastic.
To sort this out, the researchers used data from more than 8,000 students in 19 schools in the US state of North Carolina about their five closest friends and five students who had "picked on or were mean" to them, and five they in turn had been mean to. They used that web of connections to draw their conclusions.
Half the students were white and a third black. The average student was harassed by 0.72 students during the spring term, but among victims, the average number of attackers was 2.2. Girls had higher rates of victimisation. The researchers noted that there could be differences in other populations.
The researchers do not suggest that outcast teenagers of various sorts do not get bullied, only that theirs is not the whole story.
Faris also said that there was a message in the research for teenagers and their parents: it's probably better to have a few close friends than 200 Facebook friends.