Loners and antisocial kids who reject other children are often bullied at school – an accepted form of punishment from peers as the peers establish social order.
Such peer victimization may be an extreme group response to control renegades, according to a new study from Concordia University published in the Journal of Early Adolescence.
"For groups to survive, they need to keep their members under control," says author William M. Bukowski, a professor at the Concordia Department of Psychology and director of its Centre for Research in Human Development. "Withdrawn individuals threaten the strong social fabric of a group, so kids are victimized when they are too strong or too antisocial. Victimization is a reaction to anyone who threatens group harmony."
Bukowski notes that the word victimization is related to the word for sacrifice and speculates the term remains relevant in establishing modern dynamics among kids. "Peers who are victimized are sacrificed for the survival of the group."
The study, which focused on 367 English-speaking kids enrolled in grades five and six at public schools in Montreal, was undertaken to gain better insight into what makes some kids popular while others are perceived as victims or bullies.
The research team focused on social versus physical aggression among kids. "Using aggression in ways that are acceptable by peers is critical in children keeping their social status and, in turn, their social dominance," says Bukowski, noting physical attractiveness and personality traits could also influence peer standing. "We found dominant children used organized, instrumental types of relational aggression to position themselves."
To ascertain whether kids were leaders, victims or bullies, Bukowski and his team asked participants – 176 boys and 191 girls – to rate same gender peers on 17 characteristics. Bullies, for instance, were characterized as kids "who says bad things behind other people's backs; who purposely keep others out of their group; who tell friends they'll stop liking them unless they do what they want."
Alpha-kids were described as "someone who others kids usually follow; someone who is often a leader; someone who always get their own way."
Victims, for their part, were described as "someone who gets hit or kicked by other kids; someone who gets beaten up by other kids; someone who gets ignored; someone who other kids say mean things about behind their back."
Bukowski, who observed many instances of peer victimization in his previous career as a math teacher in elementary and high-schools, says educators and parents can help protect children from being victimized and prevent alpha-kids from becoming bullies.
"No one wants to blame the victim, so teachers and parents always focus on bullies, but it's important to treat symptoms in peer victimization and not only the causes," he says.
To prevent victimization in classrooms and help neutralize bullying, teachers should foster egalitarian environments, where access to power is shared, he continues. "Parents and educators should also encourage children who are withdrawn to speak up and assert themselves."