Against Bullying

I never got into a fistfight or suffered physical harm from another kid when I was young, other than a kid once randomly slugging me in the solar plexus. But I was afraid of bullies. I felt a little extra vulnerable because of being a bookworm. I tried to at least put some hard edge onto my intellectuality so that I wouldn’t look too much like a pushover and thereby attract unwanted attention from bullies.

During the years my own children were in elementary school, I was delightfully surprised to learn of serious anti-bullying campaigns, and to see how, as a result, my children felt less fear than I had in school. I see anti-bullying campaigns as part of the anti-violence march of civilization that Steven Pinker documents in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined(See also my post “Things are Getting Better: 3 Videos.”)

Going even further, the spirit of anti-bullying campaigns is being extended to other forms of cruelty that can only be called violence metaphorically. After reading Sumathi Reddy’s Wall Street Journal article “Little Children and Already Acting Mean Children, Especially Girls, Withhold Friendship as a Weapon; Teaching Empathy" I tweeted:

It is wonderful that anti-bullying campaigns are now being extended to fight social exclusion. 

There are certainly many worse things in the world than bullying, but I suspect that many of those worse things are the actions of either those who got practice in bullying when they were young, or whose bad behavior later on was partly revenge on the world for bullying suffered when young. 

To further make the case that bullying is not a trivial matter, in their article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, ”Childhood bullying involvement predicts low-grade systemic inflammation into adulthood,“ William E. Copeland, Dieter Wolkeb, Suzet Tanya Lereya, Lilly Shanahan, Carol Worthman, and E. Jane Costello write:

Bullying is a common childhood experience that affects children at all income levels and racial/ethnic groups. Being a bully victim has long-term adverse consequences on physical and mental health and financial functioning, but bullies themselves display few ill effects. Here, we show that victims suffer from greater increases in low-grade systemic inflammation from childhood to young adulthood than are seen in others. In contrast, bullies showed lower increases in inflammation into adulthood compared with those uninvolved in bullying. Elevated systemic low-grade inflammation is a mechanism by which this common childhood social adversity may get under the skin to affect adult health functioning, even many years later.

(You can see a discussion of this research in the Washington Post here.) One bit of context for this is that inflammation is being seen more and more as a risk factor for heart disease, strokes and other maladies in later life. So inflammation is not innocent. 

A little over a year ago, an overlapping team of researchers reported long-lasting psychological problems resulting from being bullied as a child. Here is the description in an article in Reuters by Genevra Pittman, ”Psychological effects of bullying can last years“:

"It’s obviously very well established how problematic bullying is short-term,” said William Copeland, a clinical psychologist who led the new study at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

“I was surprised that a decade down the road after they’ve been victimized, when they’ve kind of transitioned to adulthood, we would still see these emotional marks for the victims and also the bullies/victims.”

His team’s research included 1,420 youth from Western North Carolina who were asked about their experiences with bullying at various points between age nine and 16, then were followed and assessed for psychiatric disorders through age 26.

Just over one-quarter of kids and their parents reported they were bullied at least once, and close to one in ten said they had bullied other kids.

After adjusting for the participants’ history of family hardships, the researchers found that, compared to young adults with no history of bullying, former victims were at higher risk for a range of psychiatric conditions.

For example, 6 percent of uninvolved youth went on to have an anxiety disorder, versus 24 percent of former bullying victims and 32 percent of youth who had been both bullies and targets of bullying.

Kids who originally reported both bullying and being bullied were the most likely to be diagnosed with panic disorder or depression as young adults or to consider suicide.

Of course, this does not prove causality; those things that tend to make kids attractive target for bullying might still cause an elevated rate of psychological disorders even if an effective anti-bullying campaign meant that “easy targets” did not in fact suffer from bullying. Most likely there is some of that. But I wouldn’t want to bet on a total lack of causality from being bullied to having psychological problems later on in life. If there are regions of the country where anti-bullying campaigns have not yet begun in earnest, it should be possible to do randomized trials implementing anti-bullying campaigns in half of the schools in a sample.

If metaphorical violence is included, bullies are not absent among adults. The power of adults who are bullies in this broader sense can be reduced if they are clearly labeled as bullies by those around them.