School classes where students as well as teachers find aggressive conduct unacceptable tend to face less bullying and fighting, since such behaviour is not perceived as a viable solution to problems, and hence bullies do not become local stars and role models. In contrast, when the peer group accepts bullying and fighting, abusers are seen as 'cool' and enjoy the spotlight. Everyone else wants to be friends with them, and rude behaviour spreads like a disease. Humiliation and cruelty can thus multiply and become the collective norm, according to the paper 'Adolescent Aggression: Group Norms and Social Status among Peers' by Ivanyushina, Alexandrov and Titkova, published in the Sociological Journal.
The study is based on the findings from a survey of 418 vocational college and technical school students* in St. Petersburg. The average age of respondents was 17.
It is no secret that the roughest teenagers often become leaders within their peer group, particularly where the group is already 'infected' with hostility and rudeness. In a scary environment where the use of brutal force is acceptable, being friends with an aggressor is valued, as they can protect you against other abusers.
However, the popularity of aggressors is also dangerous, since it causes this type of conduct to spread: peers copy the cynical classmate's behaviour and engage in bullying and fighting, which is perceived as normal.
In fact, a refusal to be rude and aggressive in such groups is seen as 'breaking the rules' and punished, e.g. by rejection and insults. According to the authors, this type of social pressure can perpetuate aggression.
Russian films and TV series about teenage aggression
Scarecrow (Chuchelo, 1983), directed by Rolan Bykov
Dear Yelena Sergeevna (Dorogaya Yelena Sergeevna, 1988), directed by Eldar Ryazanov
Everybody Dies but Me (Vse umrut a ya ostanus, 2008) and other works by Valeriya Gai Germanika
The Joke (Rozygrysh, 2008), directed by Andrei Kudinenko (a remake of the eponymous film by Vladimir Menshov)
The Teacher (Uchilka, 2015), directed by Alexey Petrukhin
Favourite Teacher (Luybimaya uchitelnitsa, 2016), directed by Leonid Belozorovich
According to studies, the proportion of aggressive teenagers in U.S. and European schools stands at some 20%. A similar situation is observed in Russian schools: this study found 18.6% of all students surveyed to be prone to aggression.
Boys are more likely to be aggressive than girls. While 90% of female students reported having never quarrelled with classmates, only 69% of male students said so.
Aggression can be verbal (calling names), physical (fighting) or mixed. It can be direct (violence, intimidation, etc.) and indirect (e.g. spreading gossip). Aggression can cause the victim both physical injuries and mental trauma. Students targeted by peer aggression often begin to perform poorly in class, become socially isolated and feel inferior to others.
According to the authors, verbal aggression is much more common than physical.
Examining the subgroup of aggressors separately, the researchers found that 50% of girls and 43% boys had engaged in verbal aggression, about one-third of both genders had used mixed aggression, while 16.7% of girls and 22.6% of boys had practiced physical aggression and bullying. In terms of aggressive behaviours, gender differences in the 'aggressor' group are relatively low.
The researchers also assessed the popularity of bullies among peers. Students were asked to identify classmates to whom they related particularly often. Then each student's popularity index was calculated by subdividing the number of those who pointed them out as a friend by the maximum possible number of friendships.
Bullies were found to be generally more popular than their non-aggressive peers: 0.16 versus 0.12. "This finding suggests that rudeness is not associated with peer disapproval," the researchers comment. "Instead, bullies tend to have more friends."
The researchers also examined the relationship between aggressive teens' popularity and the overall class atmosphere. They categorised all classes into low-aggression (having about 10% of bullies) and high-aggression (with about one-quarter of students identified as bullies).
They found that in both groups, bullies were more popular among peers than non-bullies, but in high-aggression groups their popularity was even higher than in low-aggression ones. It means that the overall psychological climate can contribute to rough teens' social status.
In classes where fighting and bullying are common, non-aggressive students are at a disadvantage, and fewer classmates call them friends, whereas bullies top the most popular student lists.
Notably, female bullies tend to have a higher social status in any type of class — perhaps because bullying is less common among girls and draws attention to such students, making them more visible and interesting to their peers.
The situation is different for young men. In low-aggression classes, their status is not linked to behaviour. However, in groups where bullying is common, being aggressive clearly adds points to their rating. According to some researchers, boys tend to perceive rudeness as a sign of being a cool, macho man.
Male students tend to choose friends depending on how aggressive their environment is; where the level of aggression is low, bullies are not very popular as friends.
These findings emphasise the peer group's role in discouraging bullying and limiting its spread, the authors conclude.
* Students of technical schools and vocational colleges were chosen as respondents, because the level of aggression can be quite high in these types of training institutions, where many students come from families with a relatively low socio-economic status. The level of violence and anti-social behaviour can be higher in poor and disadvantaged social groups, and teenagers tend to adopt the style of behaviour witnessed in the family.