The Problem with Bullying: A HealthCentral Explainer


(flickr user Woodley Wonderworks)

Statistics indicate that roughly 160,000 students skip school every year to avoid being bullied. And to make matters worse, social media has enabled bullying to extend beyond school hours and to all areas of life. Plus, more and more research indicates that bullying is a major problem that can give rise to extensive consequences.

Who are the victims?

We tend to visualize the victims of bullies as timid, isolated kids who don’t “fit in,” but a new study suggests that this isn’t always the case –particularly where cyber bullying is concerned.  The study examined social groups in schools and found that cyber-aggression was most frequently targeted at relatively popular kids, as opposed to  their less social peers.  Cyber bullies were also less likely to target strangers and would instead lash out at former friends, which allows them to hurt the target on a more personal level.  The study also revealed that whether or not they were close to their peers, non-heterosexual students were more likely to be victimized.  The most frequent cyber bullying methods included sharing humiliating photos, disseminating harmful rumors, posting homophobic remarks about someone, and pretending to befriend a lonely “outsider” with cruel intentions.

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Who are the bullies?

A recent study from UCLA found that kids who were considered the coolest were also the most aggressive - physically and psychologically.  Basically, bullies are often the “cool kids.”  This presents a unique challenge in combating bullying in schools, because kids are less likely to listen to adults’ warnings about bullying if it’s perceived to increase social status and peer respect.

When should schools interfere?

Although most American adults agree that bullying is a serious issue, a recent poll revealed varying opinions about which bullying behaviors should prompt school involvement.  An analysis from the University of Michigan found that 95 percent of adults believe a school should intervene if a child’s physical safety is threatened, 81 percent said schools should take charge if a student humiliates or embarrasses a peer, and 56 percent agreed that schools should intervene if someone is socially isolated.  Ultimately, people don’t agree about the severity of certain bullying behaviors and that makes it difficult for schools to act appropriately.  Matthew M. Davis M.D., associate professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan, warns, “This is concerning because isolating a student socially is considered to be a form of bullying, and a dangerous one.  Isolating a student socially may be linked to episodes of school violence and also teen suicide.”  Backing up this assertion is the fact that 12 out of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s involved shooters who had a history of being bullied.

The consequences

Perhaps the key to unifying adults’ views on the importance of curbing bullying lies in educating the public on its health consequences.  Almost daily, studies emerge linking bullying to mental conditions, such as depression, anxiety, changes in eating patterns and an increased risk for suicide.  Most recently, [Norwegian scientists](file://localhost/University%20of%20Stavanger.%20(2012,%20November%2029).%20%22Victims%20Of%20Bullying%20Often%20Suffer%20Trauma%20Symptoms.%22%20Medical%20News%20Today.%20Retrieved%20from%20http/ found a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adolescent victims of bullying.  The study examined 936 children aged 14 and 15 and found that about 33 percent of respondents who were bullied experienced signs of trauma.  The study measured the scope of intrusive memories and avoidance behavior among the students, both of which correlate to primary signs of PTSD.  Additional research revealed that this was also the case in 40 to 60 percent of adult victims of bullying.  This is a great concern because trauma hinders concentration and the ability to function normally in daily life.  This would most certainly affect  academic and professional performance.

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Lasting effects: Not just for the victims.

Another troubling detail is the fact that the effects of childhood bullying last into adulthood.  Last month, Duke University revealed one of the [first studies](file://localhost/Bullied%20children%20can%20suffer%20lasting%20psychological%20harm%20as%20adults%20.%20(2013,%20February%2020).%20Retrieved%20from%20http/ to establish long-term effects from childhood bullying.  The researchers examined 1,420 children and their parents, monitoring their general mental health beginning at age 9, 11, or 13, assessing them annually until age 16, and then again at ages 19, 21, and 25.  The kids were divided into four groups: bullies, victims, bully/victims, or neither.  They found that any involvement in bullying boded poorly for adulthood.  Those who were just bullies didn’t show problems with emotional functioning as adults, which didn’t surprise the scientists because those children were used to feeling power in relationships from an early age.  Those who were pure victims showed a higher risk of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia than the kids uninvolved in bullying.  Those who fared the worst were the bully/victims, who showed a higher risk of every depressive and anxiety disorder possible.  It’s not yet clear why bullying has such long-term effects, and scientists are now beginning to look at it much like we look at other forms of childhood maltreatment or abuse.  A [study](file://localhost/University%20of%20Montreal.%20(2012,%20December%2021).%20%22Bullying%20By%20Childhood%20Peers%20Leaves%20A%20Trace%20That%20Can%20Change%20The%20Expression%20Of%20A%20Gene%20Linked%20To%20Mood.%22%20Medical%20News%20Today.%20Retrieved%20from%20http/ from the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) found evidence that bullying can actually alter the expression of a gene that is linked to mood, leading to a variety of depressive and anxiety disorders.  Further research is still needed to scratch the surface of how childhood experiences affect adulthood.

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How can we prevent this?

The harmful effects of bullying can be mitigated with adult and peer support.  A new study identified social support from adults and peers as an essential buffer to the experience of bullying, - particularly on girls.  After analyzing the mental health of 3,026 ten-year olds, researchers found that those who reported having positive relationships with both adults and peers and higher self-esteem were less likely to experience the consequences of bullying.  This underscores the importance of teacher and parental involvement, peer interaction, and helping kids find and highlight their strengths early on.

The takeaway

As research continues to emerge stressing the dangers of bullying, we need to enhance efforts to assess effective measures in its prevention and treatment.  Bullying may, to an extent, be a normal part of development.  But regardless of public opinion concerning its severity, the consequences are too great to ignore any longer.

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