sealPurdue News

May 1998

Study finds boy bullies popular; girl bullies not

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A study by a Purdue University expert on child development shows that boys who are bullies are not only accepted, but they can actually be among the more popular youngsters in school.

"But woe to the girl who is overly aggressive," says Laura Hess, assistant professor of child development and family studies. "Our research shows that girls who are disruptive and aggressive are at a much greater risk of being rejected by their peers than are their male counterparts."

In a study of third- through fifth-graders at two urban schools, Hess also found the line between who was a bully and who was a victim was not always clear. "A significant number of children who are aggressive may also be victimized by their peers," she says.

"Often these children are picked on by the other kids, and out of frustration, they lash out at others through very aggressive means. These children were the least well-liked, regardless of gender."

Hess' study, published in the April issue of the journal Applied Developmental Science, was conducted with Marc Atkins at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

The researchers asked teachers to rate the behavior of children in the classrooms and to make judgments about their social status and acceptance. Students were asked to similarly rate their peers and to list their own perceived social acceptance and self-competence.

"The children we classified as 'controls' were the most popular. They were well liked by teachers and students and were not overly aggressive nor were they typically victims. Boys in this group were slightly more popular than girls," Hess says.

Following closely on the heels of the popular girls were the boy bullies, who were only slightly less popular among peers. "Aggression is much more well-accepted in boys than it is in girls. The only students that girl bullies were more popular than were the children that nobody seemed to like -- the 'aggressive victims,'" Hess says.

Boys who were "aggressive victims" were the least-liked children in school, and they knew it. "These boys rated themselves very low in social acceptance and self-worth," she says. Hess says that victim status for a boy -- just like bully status for a girl -- is a very unpopular label.

Her findings suggest that even children buy into -- and prefer -- traditional gender roles. She says passivity is a traditionally female trait and much more socially accepted in females than in males. On the other hand, aggression is associated with males, and less accepted in females.

Aggression often takes different forms based on gender. "Girls are more likely to display indirect aggression. Rather than physically fight with their peers, aggressive girls have a tendency to exhibit social control," Hess says. They are more likely to fight a war of words and victimize others through manipulation rather than by physical means.

Hess suggests that administrators and teachers need to focus on ridding school environments of all forms of aggression. "In order to prevent kids from being victimized at school, we need to promote the idea that any form of aggression by any student -- regardless of gender or social status -- is unacceptable," she says.

Hess says efforts that might curb aggressive behavior include education, videos, posters and rewards for good behavior.

She says sometimes it's just a matter of giving children positive alternatives to aggression. "At one school, kids were sent outside at recess to play on a fenced-in blacktop area -- they had no playground or sports equipment," she says. As a result, the children became bored and resorted to roughhousing and fighting.

The researchers provided jump-ropes and taught the pupils how to play games such as hopscotch and kickball. "It was amazing the change in atmosphere. Kids who had previously spent recess hiding from the others were actually enjoying themselves, and the fighting was greatly reduced according to the kids' own reports," Hess says.

Source: Laura Hess, (765) 494-1029; e-mail,
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Copies if the article in the journal Applied Developmental Science are available from Beth Forbes at Purdue News Service, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,

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