Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Studies - PDF suggest that this type of peer victimization is a pervasive issue — 28% of children and youth reported being bullied at school during the 2011 school year. Research since the 1990s shows that children who are bullied are more likely than their peers to develop mental and physical health problems. Now, new neurobiological research shows the negative effects of bullying on the physical health, mental health, and overall well-being of children and youth.
Genetics research, neuroimaging studies, and studies of the stress response system reveal harmful biological changes associated with bullying. For instance, studies show bullying causes depression in children and youth. Researchers have tried to explain this bullying-health link by examining the role of the body’s stress response system. These studies suggest that bullying impacts the body’s stress response system and that these changes can be risk factors for poorer health. Researchers are now examining specific genetic vulnerabilities that may place a person at risk for later health impairment and disease risk factors, such as poorer immune function. These studies suggest that peer victimization seems to “get under the skin” and that exposure to peer abuse affects the developing stress response and expression of genes, which places children and youth at greater risk for poorer health outcomes.
This emerging body of neurobiological research was recently highlighted at the April 2014 Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC) working session, “Building Capacity to Reduce Bullying and Its Impact on Youth Across the Lifecourse.” The two-day workshop, sponsored by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) brought together experts from across the field of bullying prevention to explore the impacts of bullying and research-based prevention strategies. Experts highlighted studies documenting the biological risk markers and harmful changes associated with bullying were highlighted throughout the workshop.
However, far more research is needed to understand the complex relationship between bullying, health outcomes, and neurobiology. A deeper understanding of the neurobiology of peer victimization could help explain why some children and youth become ill as a consequence of bullying, while others do not. It is well-documented that factors such as family life, school climate, gender, and temperament can impact health outcomes of bullying. However, much less attention has been paid to how a person’s biology may also affect health outcomes of bullying or to how the experience of being humiliated by peers on a consistent basis may alter gene expression in such a way that health problems ensue. Recognizing the “invisible scars” bullying can leave is an important step in promoting positive well-being for youth through adolescence and into adulthood.
Tracy Vaillancourt is a Canada Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa where she is cross-appointed as a full professor in the Faculty of Education (counselling program) and in the School of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences. Elizabeth Edgerton is the Director of the Division of Child, Adolescent and Family Health at the Health Resources and Services Administration.