Mythbusting bestseller changes face of the stereotypical bullies

1st January 2010 at 00:00
Study says they are likely to be high achievers striving to preserve their place in teenage pecking order

Young bullies are not typically from deprived backgrounds or lacking in confidence, a new bestselling book argues.

Instead, they are often "cool kids" who bully to preserve their place in the teenage pecking order.

The argument is made in NurtureShock, by award-winning science journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which is yet to be published in the UK but became a talking point at the recent School Leaders Scotland annual conference.

The book, a New York Times bestseller which trawls through existing research to overturn several "myths" about childhood, was cited in a presentation by Carol Craig, director of the Glasgow-based Centre for Confidence and Well-being.

Rather than insecure children being the perpetrators of bullying, "it's the popular kids who are often doing it, for status reasons", Dr Craig said.

These were young people who were socially self-confident, high achievers and often perfectly pleasant in certain contexts.

One explanation could be a fairly recent trend in the United States, which has seen different age groups mixing less frequently than in the past. Status that would previously have been acquired by mere dint of age, therefore, has had to be reached in a different way - hence bullying.

It is also argued that status among these young people is often achieved by defying adults' wishes. This raises a question, Dr Craig believes, about whether anti-bullying drives might sometimes be counter-productive, having created an expectation of behaviour against which young people rebel.

Dr Craig stressed that the book's findings were not hers, and she did not claim to have definitive answers. But they did highlight issues relevant to Scotland, especially since anti-bullying campaigns did not seem to be quelling the problem and the issue was often more complex than portrayed.

Brian Donnelly, director of anti-bullying organisation respectme, said: "In our experience, when young people are asked to draw a poster or produce some artwork about bullying, the person who is bullying is usually portrayed as a big, beefy thug, not too bright and full of underlying self-loathing.

"When you ask the same young people if they have ever been bullied, and they say `yes', and you ask if the person looked like that, they invariably say, `No, they just looked like a normal person.'"

Many children who bully others are bright and articulate and have no issues with poor self-esteem, he stressed, while the "manipulation of relationships does require a level of skill and intelligence".

They might have a mother and father in good jobs, their bullying being a reflection of their parents' disrespectful attitude to staff and customers at work. Many children were also under a lot of pressure from parents to be competitive and succeed at all costs, which could "spill over into bullying behaviour".

Mr Donnelly's organisation does not refer to "bullies" or "victims", but to bullying behaviour. If such behaviour is widely perceived as the preserve of self-loathing thugs, he explained, then those who did not fit the stereotype might struggle to accept they were guilty of bullying.

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