What Motivates Kids Who Are Bullies?
Study Shows Children Who Bully Are Trying to Boost Their Popularity
March 25, 2010 -- Class bullies are often thought of as outcasts whose
actions lead to rejection by their peers, but new research shows that many are
actually popular kids who raise their social standing by picking on others.
As many as half of all children are bullied at some point during their
school years, and at least one in 10 is a frequent target of bullies, surveys
In an effort to better understand what makes bullies bully, researchers in
the Netherlands questioned close to 500 grade-school children between the ages
of 9 and 12.
The researchers found that children who bullied were often motivated by a
desire to increase their popularity and that they chose generally unpopular
victims to avoid losing social status.
Boys who bullied tended to seek the approval of other boys; girls who
bullied sought the approval of other girls.
When boys bullied girls they chose victims who were disliked by other boys,
with little concern about what the girls thought. Girls did the same when they
The study appears in the March/April issue of Child Development.
"Bullies aren't looking to be loved, but they are looking to be noticed,"
says study researcher Rene Veenstra, PhD, who is a professor of sociology at
Holland's University of Groningen. "They are often perceived as very
While the study is not the first to show that bullies seek and often find
social acceptance through their actions, it is among the first to show this in
preteens, University of Wisconsin professor of educational psychology Amy
Bellmore, PhD, tells WebMD.
"It flies in the face of the generally held idea that kids who pick on other
kids have poor social skills and low self-esteem," she says. "Even at this
young age, bullies tend to be aware of the social hierarchy within the class
and are seeking the admiration of specific people."
How to Reduce Bullying
Sandra Graham, PhD, who is a professor of psychological studies at
University of California, Los Angeles, says the recognition that bullies are
often popular should have an impact on interventions aimed at reducing
She says interventions that seek to raise the self-esteem of children who
bully have not been very successful.
"The thought had been that if we made bullies feel better about themselves
they wouldn't pick on other kids," she says. "But there is not much evidence
that bullies suffer from low self-esteem."
Graham says children who bully seem to benefit from interventions that help
them manage their anger.
And interventions aimed not at the bully or the victim, but at the classroom
as a whole have also had an impact.
Veenstra tells WebMD that in Finland, bullying decreased by about 40% in
elementary schools where just such a program was enacted.
The 20-hour intervention focused on increasing empathy for victims of
bullying though discussion, role playing, and watching videos of famous people
talking about their own experiences with bullies.