In the eighth grade, Zach Veach weighed 80 pounds and stood less than five feet tall. The bigger kids at school would push him around, pick him up, and knock his books on the floor.
"It always seemed to come from the football players," Veach said.
Veach, who was into go-karting at the time, was teased about his stature and for wearing car racing clothes. But now, the 16-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio, is a champion race car driver with Michael Andretti's team "Andretti Autosport" – the most successful team in Indy Racing League history.
"Now, a lot of the kids that bullied me are trying to be my friends," Veach said. "It's really hard – you want to look at them and ask, 'What's changed from two years ago?' I haven't changed but suddenly they want to be my friend."
Veach, an honor-roll sophomore, drew from his own experience to write a how-to guide for surviving high school: "99 Things Teens Wish They Knew Before Turning 16."
"Bullies are usually people who are insecure about themselves," Veach wrote in his book, which hits shelves in March. "Try to remember that when someone is picking on you for no reason. Just tell yourself that you are not the one with the problem."
Veach's observation is the topic of ongoing research into who bullies, who gets bullied, and why.
A study published Feb. 8 in the journal American Sociological Review suggests bullies use aggression to climb the social ladder at school. So bullies tend not to be the most or the least popular, but rather kids in the middle of the "social hierarchy."
"The overall theory is that kids view bullying as a tactic for gaining social position," said study lead author Robert Faris, assistant professor in the department of sociology at University of California at Davis.
Veach remembers how helpless he felt when the football quarterback swiped his Bridgestone Tires hat – a souvenir from his second national championship in Indianapolis, which was too big and hung over his ears.
"He threw the hat in the trash and then dumped chocolate milk on it," Veach said. "That hurt the most."
"Bullying affects millions of American youth every year, and victimization is associated with increased rates of mental health problems like depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation," Faris said. "We need to increase our understanding of it in a hurry."
Faris and other are working to better identify risk factors for bullying and for being bullied, so that interventions can be targeted to the right kids.
"I think one of the most important unanswered questions is: What can we do to prevent bullying?" said Liz Arnold, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, adding that current strategies seem to be falling short. "One of the things we need to look at is who's at risk. And this study suggests that it may be those kids in the middle level of their peer social network."
Faris agrees that preventing bullying is the ultimate goal. But focusing on the bullies and the bullied might not be the answer.