Bullying is a form of emotional abuse that can have severe adverse effects which last a lifetime. (Rusk & Rusk, 1988) Though many adults may be inclined to dismiss this abuse as merely a right of passage, re-search indicates that bullying can be just as harmful (or far more harmful) than many other types of child abuse parents concern themselves with, such as physical or sexual abuse. Well explore this evidence in a moment, but first, let’s start out by discussing some of the fundamental ways that bullying affects a person.
How Bullying Affects Children — The Cost of Social Rejection
Our brain registers social rejections in the same regions that activate when we are hurt physically. (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004) As an intensely social species, we’ve evolved to depend on the group for our very survival. As a result, our brain’s emotional centers are wired to take social rejection, persecution, or exclusion very seriously. We are built to interpret group rejection as a significant threat to survival itself, and the emotional response we feel when targeted by others matches in intensity this perceived life-death significance. This is why bullying can hurt so much, and why bullying is so commonly ti ed to suicide. Research throughout the fields of psychology and neurology suggests that humans are wired to treat this type of social scorn and rejection as the worst thing that could ever happen to them. Whether it’s a child who is emotionally neglected or abused by parents or teens that are seen as outcasts by their peers, the worst outcomes are seen among children who are made to feel rejected in some way.
The effects of social pain
Consistent with the information above, an analysis of 208 studies involving 6,153 individuals who had been subjected to different types of stressors found that of all forms of stress, the worst by far was when someone was the target of harsh criticism and was helpless to do anything about it. (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004) The largest spikes in cortisol (the stress hormone) occurred when the source of stress was interpersonal and judgmental. Not only did stress levels increase the most in such situations, but the cortisol also stayed on the brain 50% longer. This perfectly describes the situation during bullying. The source of stress is interpersonal, judgmental, and usually extremely harsh, and the victim is helpless to do much about it.
Chronic stress effects from bullying
Peer stress has been found to be the most frequently occurring stressor during early and middle adolescence. (Isakson & Jarvis, 1998) And because it involves these conditions that are known to bring about the highest spikes in stress hormones, bullying can be accurately described as something that is likely to cause some of the most severe stress a child will ever experience. Set aside for a moment the psychological and emotional consequences of bullying. This stress is worrisome enough in its own regard. When stress becomes ongoing (or chronic), it can begin to do some serious damage, impacting everything from brain development to basic measures of human health.
Chronic stress can substantially lower a child’s IQ, since too much cortisol on the brain can kill off neurons in the hippocampus or other important learning centers, stunt neurogeneration of new cells in the brain, and weaken dendrites (the branches that link from neuron to neuron and give the brain its interconnectivity); all of which impair cognitive abilities. Chronic stress can lead to psychosomatic symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches. It impairs day to day functioning and profoundly interferes with a child’s ability to learn. Most worrisome of all, too much stress in childhood — particularly in the formative early years — can permanently hypersensitize a child’s brain toward stress, so that they react more profoundly (and poorly) in the face of other stressful situations in the future. Social anxiety causes people to roll over easier in the face of defeat, and may permanently sensitize a person to social threats. Finally, chronic stress has been linked to a variety of adverse health effects. Those lower in the social hierarchy experience far more stress-related health problems, such as higher blood pressure, inflammation, and increased susceptibility to a variety of diseases. (Hutson, 2008) They get sick more often, die sooner, and chronic stress even effects a teen’s susceptibility to addiction. (You can learn more on the effects of stress and hypersensitivity, including references for the research just discussed, in our book, Child Maltreatment: A-Cross-Conrarison’)
How bullying affects children: A loss of control
Bullying tends to result in another situation that is toxic for psychological health: A loss of control. Apart from social shame (the first ingredient of bullying), a sense that one has no control over their life with its accompanying feelings of helplessness can be described as the second most harmful human experience, with a long list of research documenting its detrimental effects. (A summary of this research can be found in our book, Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison.) From the earliest days of infancy, human beings hate feeling helpless. Our entire world is built around manipulating our environment. When a baby cries she controls her parent, summoning the comfort needed. (Babies who cannot control their caretakers like this become desperately unhappy and are not going to thrive.) Toddlers love manipulating their environment in ways that will change things at their will, such as building a block tower only to gleefully tear it down. And as adults, we constantly strive for predictability and a sense of control over our lives, becoming extremely unhappy if we feel we’ve lost it. A sense of control, even if only illusionary, is a staple of psychological health.
When a child is being bullied, they must live life in a hostile environment that they feel powerless to exert any control over. They’ve usually done nothing to incite the attacks, other than being someone or something that seems to provoke the ire of their bullies, and so they feel helpless in the face of the aggression they are experiencing. If they didn’t do anything to cause it, then there’s little to draw from in terms of preventing it. It’s not as though bullies respond to reason – it’s a form of aggression where the sole reason IS the aggression – so it thrusts kids into this uncontrollable, highly negative, highly volatile world that has no sense of logic, reason, or predictability to it. It doesn’t play by any of the rules of normal social interaction or respond to any of the reparations that could be made in the face of normalized conflict.
In addition to this, the type of bullying children may experience can leave them feeling powerless. Bullying can involve things that are intentionally designed to humiliate a victim and make them feel powerless; such as having others overpower you to strip you naked or pull down your pants. It can mean being shoved in a trash can, having someone spread lies that trash your reputation, being repeatedly shaken down for your possessions, stealing food so that a child doesn’t eat, restricting someone’s movement, etc. All of these are things that undermine a child’s sense of autonomy at a very personal level. This invasive, personal loss of control can produce feelings similar to what rape victims feel.
When control over one’s environment is lost for extended periods of time, it results in a condition psychologists refer to as learned helplessness. This spells bad news on a number of fronts. Learned helplessness is akin to an Eyore-like despair. A child loses hope that they can improve their situation. They begin to give up on life and act in ways that reflect this underlying belief in the hopelessness of it all. They come to think that they can never do anything right, and can never improve their situation, so why bother. Learned helplessness is closely associated with depression and a host of other psychological problems.
A child’s vulnerability to the effects of bullying
Making matters worse, bullying tends to peak and become most severe at precisely the worst time in a child’s development. Research shows that the dorsal medialprefrontal cortex (MPFC), an area of the brain associated with self-perception and social reflection, is more active in adolescents than it is among adults. This makes sense, considering that a teen is transitioning into an independent person. Sarah Blakemore, lead author of the study, notes that “Adolescence requires becoming independent…and develop(ing) a more socially constructed sense of the self.” (Choi, 2009) But this also means that adolescents are the most sensitive to bullying at the very time in their life when they tend to experience it the most. Such research on the brain can “help explain why peer influence is so strong in adolescence, compared with before and after,” says Blakemore. It should also illustrate the need to take bullying seriously, since it’s a form of social abuse that becomes most prevalent during this critical window of development.
Thus, bullying can have severely negative lasting consequences on the children who experience it. Bullying researchers Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 25) sum it up as follows: “The damage can include (but is not limited to) shame, lessened self-esteem, impaired self-image, and learned helplessness. The basic components of learned helplessness are the beliefs that one has no control over what is happening, that a bad event will continue to recur, and that nothing can effectively happen to change the situation. As a result of these damaging perceptions, kids begin to make important choices that hurt them academically and socially, perhaps in ways that affect the rest of their lives.”
How bullying compares to other forms of child abuse
Verbal and emotional abuse is associated with a host of psychological, emotional, and psychosomatic (physical ills caused by emotional distress) symptoms. (Ellis & Powers, 2000) Bullying in every form is a type of emotional abuse. When it involves physical aggression or attacks, that simply adds one more dimension to the abuse, but the physical pain is secondary to the emotional pain that such aggression causes a child.
In Western society, we tend to diminish social or emotional pain as less important, yet research reveals it to be far more harmful in most situations than any physical actions. When a child is physically abused, for example, it’s the emotional impact of this aggressive action, not the physical pain, that contributes to harmful outcomes. After all, children experience pain on a regular basis: falling off a bike, scraping their knee, getting shots, banging their head on the door, having headaches or stomachaches, etc. Childhood is certainly no stranger to pain. The difference between these physical pains and physical abuse is the social element. One experience, because it is aggressive in nature, delivers social pain and results in the child internalizing destructive messages about themselves. The other does not. This social injury is why one experience can produce a severely damaged child, whereas the other types of pain do not. In fact, it is social injuries (not actions) which underlie the damage caused to a child by any type of abuse.
Research has shown, for example, that verbal abuse (mere words) is 7-times more correlated with lasting harm than childhood sexual abuse. (Ney et al., 1994) In fact, in our book, Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison, we explore dozens upon dozens of studies which have repeatedly demonstrated that social/emotional elements matter far more to kids than specific actions. (See the Cross Comparison Chapters). Even something so seemingly minor as a parent having higher levels of narcissism (which translates into various social messages the child internalizes about their own place in life) can outperform something like childhood incest in terms of causing negative outcomes for kids. (Moor, 1993) Many people react incredulously towards such a statement at first, especially since news and drama shows are filled with misinformation that will lead us into believing the exact opposite. But if you look past our labels about abuse to examine the elements of abuse according to what we know is harmful, these facts suddenly start to fall into place.
Child Abuse: A Problem of Social Messages
It helps to think about it this way: child abuse is ultimately about messages over actions. (Society ends up so completely wrong about what is most harmful because they approach it in the exact opposite way, attaching labels to actions while ignoring the messages that each unique action might bring.) When a child is struck by their parent, that action delivers with it many powerful social messages: I’m bad, I’m unwanted, I’m unlovable, I anger mommy to the point she wants to hurt me, etc. It is these messages more than actions that contribute to lasting harm. Which is why being struck by an adult is consistently detrimental to a child’s wellbeing, whereas falling down and scraping a knee is not.
It’s the same with sexual abuse. If an adult continually forces a child into sexual acts that the child finds painful, uncomfortable, or humiliating, this disregard for the child’s wishes and bodily autonomy also produces a set of negative social messages similar to physical abuse, which will erode a child’s mental health over time. However, such negative social messages may be completely absent in the many cases where the child is what abuse researchers refer to as a “participating victim.” In these cases, a child may find the experiences pleasurable (genital stimulation can produce pleasure and orgasm for children just as it does with adults), or they may relish in the attention and intimacy they receive from this person. Especially in cases where a child feels neglected in the home, this can actually tilt the social messages towards the positive side, affirming rather than harming them. Was a child physically coerced into such actions and then threatened with secrecy with something like, “I’ll kill your family if you tell”? Or did the acts emerge out of affection from someone the child loved, who otherwise respected their feelings and engaged in actions that produced pleasure rather than pain? These are two very different circumstances with very different social messages, though society tends to group them under one label. Since most cases of molestation involve circumstances where the sexual acts emerge out of affectionate relationships rather than overt aggression, this is why other things such as verbal abuse or parental pathology consistently produce worse outcomes. If it were the other way around, with most cases being the more aggressive, Sandusky-type rape and I’ll kill you if you tell scenarios, things would be different.
No matter what type of abusive situation you examine, the harm is more about destructive social messages than any particular action. This is why verbal/emotional abuse, which is essentially child abuse in its purest form (direct, negative social messages about a child), can prove to be so much more harmful than something like your average non-violent molestation. And it’s also why bullying can be do destructive.
So what does this have to do with bullying?
Because the most potent harm from child abuse is delivered via negative social messages, there is good reason for special concern when it comes to the bullying epidemic. Bullying, after all, is another form of child abuse with direct, highly negative social messages at its core. It’s abuse in its purest form. Although less potent than verbal or emotional abuse coming from a caretaker, it nonetheless has a profound impact. As Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 159) argue, “after what happens in their homes, the biggest immediate influences on adolescents are their peer groups and the schools they attend.”
As a study by Kidscape observes, research “shows that being badly bullied as a child has a dramatic, negative, knock-on effect throughout life.” (Kidscape, 1999, p. 1)