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Bullying and the Brain

Bullying—mistreating and dominating others—is harmful in the moment and possibly throughout the rest of a person’s life.

Who this is for:

Ethicists and Social Scientists
Science Communicators

Pick up your favorite young adult novel or start watching the latest teen drama on your favorite streaming app and, chances are, one of the major plot points will involve bullying. While such stories may lead you to believe that bullying, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort,” is just a childhood rite of passage, many studies have shown it can have long-term effects on an individual’s health and well-being. Research studies looking at links between bullying and the brain have demonstrated it also can have significant cognitive and emotional consequences, much like other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like neglect or family violence.

What is an adverse childhood experience (ACE)?

An ACE is a negative or potentially traumatic event that occurs in childhood. ACEs can include physical, psychological, or sexual abuse, or neglect—it’s any prolonged or repeated experience that might undermine a child’s sense of safety and stability and, in doing so, lead to increased feelings of stress and social isolation.

The landmark ACEs study, a 1998 epidemiological review that looked at how childhood trauma can affect health later, in adulthood, demonstrated that ACEs are directly correlated with mental health issues, substance abuse disorders, and chronic health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular disease (See also Childhood Trauma Leaves Lasting Marks on the Brain and Following the Threads: The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Psychosis).

Chronic bullying, or persistent physical or psychological abuse that may come from a family member or a friend, is considered an ACE. It, like other ACEs, can lead to overwhelming feelings of stress and isolation. Children who are bullied can develop anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues later in life, studies show. Bullying has also been linked to self-harm behaviors and even suicide. It’s a problem that schools, doctors, and scientists take very seriously.

How common is bullying?

Around 20 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 experience some form of bullying, according to federal programs including the 2019 Indicators of School Crime and Safety and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.  It is a widespread enough problem that the Department of Education has deemed bullying a national epidemic, calling for more programs to prevent and stop it happening in the nation’s schools.

Are there different types of bullying?

Bullying can come in many different forms. The most common types of bullying involve being the subject of rumors or lies, or being consistently belittled or called names. Some people may also be bullied physically, by being pushed or shoved, or having their property taken or destroyed.

People can also be bullied through electronic means. This form of bullying, called cyberbullying, may occur when people receive negative emails, text messages, or online comments—or  when the rumors or lies about them are spread to others via social media apps or other Internet-based ways. Regardless of the type of bullying, it is something to take seriously, especially when the person being bullied is experiencing increased stress or negative feelings in response to it.

How does bullying affect the brain?

Since the first ACES study was published, researchers have tried to understand why experiences like bullying can lead to such negative health consequences. Those studies have led to new insights into how bullying can lead to changes to the brain.

For example, the IMAGEN project, a European research consortium studying adolescent brain development, looked at the effects of bullying on young adults. About 30 percent of participants in the study said they had experienced chronic bullying, and they reported higher levels of anxiety than those who hadn’t been bullied. When the researchers looked at fMRI scans of the bullied individuals, they discovered structural differences in the brain in areas like the putamen and caudate, both linked to anxiety disorders. Other studies have shown that chronic bullying is also linked to white matter changes in the brain, which may make the person more susceptible to depression.

Other studies, using animal models and human participants, suggest that chronic bullying leads to increased release of stress hormones, like cortisol, especially in brain areas involved with reward processing. Not only do those chemicals make you more reactive to stress, in general, but, over time, they can change the circuitry in the reward centers, which can put people at higher risk of developing a substance use disorder after trying alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs.

Studies also show that the stress hormones released during bullying can also affect the immune system. Those hormones can lead to increased inflammation, which has been linked to both depression and anxiety disorders, as well as medical conditions such as hypertension and obesity. When you put it all together, the chronic stress involved with the experience of persistent bullying can lead to structural and functional brain changes that can increase your risk of developing both mental and physical health problems when you are an adult.

Are those changes permanent?

The good news is the brain is “plastic”—the networks and circuits in everyone’s brains have the ability to change over time in response to their environment. Even if you have experienced bullying at one point or another in your life, that doesn’t mean you will necessarily develop ACE-related health problems. That said, if you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or are using drugs or alcohol in an unhealthy way, it’s important to reach out to your primary care provider or mental health professional. They can help.

Does bullying harm the bully?

It would appear so. Studies with animals demonstrate that those that are bullied tend to show increased levels of stress hormones, too. Over time, those bullied animals tend to be more aggressive toward younger, smaller animals. In addition to that, a 2013 JAMA Psychiatry study in people found both bullies and their victims showed a higher prevalence of childhood psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression. And bullies, and not their targets, were at a higher risk for developing antisocial personality disorder later in life. That said, it is hard to be sure, because the vast majority of children who end up bullying others have been bullied themselves. It is a vicious cycle.

What should I do if I am or someone I know is being bullied?

If you are being bullied, talk to an adult that you trust – a parent, teacher, coach, or some other important person in your life. Most bullying happens where other people can’t see it, so when you can shine a light on it by talking about it, you can do your part to help prevent it from happening again. Mental Health America also recommends telling bullies to stop in a calm, clear voice, to keep yourself surrounded by other people in situations where you are likely to be bullied, and to never respond to online bullies. Your specific plan for managing the problem will likely depend on the type of bullying you or someone you care about are experiencing.

Remember: Bullying isn’t something everyone goes through, or just a normal part of childhood. It can and does have lasting consequences. Whenever you can prevent it from happening, you can help prevent the development of bullying-related mental and physical health issues, too.

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