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Bullying

The Broad Impact of School Bullying, and What Must Be Done

Major interventions are required to make schools safe learning environments.

Key points

  • At least one in five kids is bullied, and a significant percentage are bullies. Both are negatively affected, as are bystanders.
  • Bullying is an epidemic that is not showing signs of improvement.
  • Evidence-based bullying prevention programs can be effective, but school adoption is inconsistent.

According to the U.S. federal government website StopBullying.gov:

There is no federal law that specifically applies to bullying. In some cases, when bullying is based on race or ethnicity, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion, bullying overlaps with harassment and schools are legally obligated to address it.

The National Bullying Prevention Center reports data suggesting that one in five children have been bullied. There are many risk factors for being targeted, including being seen as weak, being different from peers including being LGBT or having learning differences or visible disabilities, being depressed or anxious, and having few friends. It's hard to measure how many engage in bullying, but estimates range from one in twenty, to much higher.

The American Association of University Women reports that in grades 7-12, 48 percent of students (56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys) are sexually harassed. In college, rates of sexual harassment rise to 66 percent. Eleven percent are raped or sexually assaulted.

Silence facilitates traumatization

Only 20 percent of attacked young women report sexual assault. And 89 percent of undergraduate schools report zero sexual harassment. This means that children, adolescents, young adults and their friends are at high risk for being victimized. It means that many kids know what is happening, and don't do anything.

This may be from fear of retaliation and socialization into a trauma-permissive culture, and it may be from lack of proper education and training. Institutional betrayal, when organizations fail to uphold their promises and responsibilities, adds to the problem.

In some states such as New York, laws like “the Dignity for All Students Act” (DASA) apply only to public schools. Private, religious, and denominational schools are not included, leaving 20 percent of students in NYC and 10 percent throughout the state unprotected. Research shows that over the last decade, bullying in U.S. high schools has held steady around 20 percent, and 15 percent for cyberbullying.

The impact of bullying

While there is much research on how bullying affects mental health, social function, and academics, the results are scattered across dozens of papers. A recent paper in the Journal of School Violence (Halliday et al., 2021) presents a needed systematic literature review on bullying’s impact in children aged 10-18.

1. Psychological: Being a victim of bullying was associated with increased depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Victims of bullying reported more suicidal thinking and engaged in greater self-harming behaviors. They were more likely to experience social anxiety, body-image issues, and negative conduct. Simultaneous cyberbullying and conventional bullying were associated with more severe depression.

2. Social: Bullying victims reported greater problems in relationships with family, friends and in day-to-day social interactions. They reported they enjoyed time with family and friends less, felt they were being treated unfairly more easily, and liked less where they lived. Victimized children were less popular and likeable, and experienced more social rejection. They tended to be friends with other victims, potentially heightening problems while also providing social support.

3. Academic achievement: Victimized kids on average had lower grades. Over time, they did worse especially in math. They tended to be more proficient readers, perhaps as a result of turning to books for comfort in isolation (something people with a history of being bullied commonly report in therapy).

4. School attitudes: Bullied children and adolescents were less engaged in education, had poorer attendance, felt less belonging, and felt more negatively about school.

5. What happens with age? Researchers studied adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying, looking at both victims and bullies, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry (Copeland et al., 2013). After controlling for other childhood hardships, researchers found that young adults experience increased rates of agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house), generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and increased depression risk. Men had higher suicide risk.

The impact of bullying does not stop in early adulthood. Research in the Journals of Gerontology (Hu, 2021) found that people over the age of 60 who were bullied as children had more severe depression and had lower life satisfaction.

6. Bullying and the brain: Work reported in Frontiers in Psychiatry (Muetzel et al., 2019) found that victims of bullying had thickening of the fusiform gyrus, an area of the cerebral cortex involved with facial recognition, and sensing emotions from facial expressions.1 For those with posttraumatic stress disorder, brain changes may be extensive.

7. Bystanders are affected: Research also shows that bystanders have higher rates of anxiety and depression (Midgett et al., 2019). The problem is magnified for bystanders who are also victims. It is likely that taking appropriate action is protective.

Given that victims of bullying are at risk for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Idsoe et al., 2012), it’s important to understand that many of the reported psychiatric findings may be better explained by PTSD than as a handful of overlapping but separate diagnoses. Trauma often goes unrecognized.

What can be done?

The psychosocial and academic costs of unmitigated bullying are astronomical, to say nothing of the considerable economic cost. Change is needed, but resistance to change, as with racism, gender bias, and other forms of discrimination, is built into how we see things.

Legislation: There is no federal antibullying legislation, and state laws may be weak and inconsistently applied. Given that bullying rates are no longer falling, it’s important for lawmakers and advocates to seek immediate changes.

Bullying prevention: Schools can adopt antibullying programs, though they are not universally effective and sometimes may backfire. Overall, however, research in JAMA Pediatrics (Fraguas et al., 2021) shows that antibullying programs reduce bullying, improve mental health outcomes, and stay effective over time.2

Trauma-informed education creates an environment in which all participants are aware of the impact of childhood trauma and the need for specific modifications given how trauma is common among children and how it affects development.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN):

"The primary mission of schools is to support students in educational achievement. To reach this goal, children must feel safe, supported, and ready to learn. Children exposed to violence and trauma may not feel safe or ready to learn. Not only are individual children affected by traumatic experiences, but other students, the adults on campus, and the school community can be impacted by interacting or working with a child who has experienced trauma. Thus, as schools maintain their critical focus on education and achievement, they must also acknowledge that mental health and wellness are innately connected to students’ success in the classroom and to a thriving school environment."

Parenting makes a difference. Certain parenting styles may set kids up for emotional abuse in relationships, while others may be protective. A 2019 study reported in Frontiers in Public Health (Plexousakis et al.) found that children with anxious, overprotective mothers were more likely to be victims.

Those with cold or detached mothers were more likely to become bullies. Overprotective fathering was associated with worse PTSD symptoms, likely by getting in the way of socialization. The children of overprotective fathers were also more likely to be aggressive.

Quality parental bonding, however, appeared to help protect children from PTSD symptoms. A healthy home environment is essential both for helping victims of bullying and preventing bullying in at-risk children.

Parents who recognize the need to learn more positive approaches can help buffer again the all-too-common cycle of passing trauma from generation to generation, building resilience and nurturing secure attachment to enjoy better family experiences and equip children to thrive.

References

Resources

State-by-state legislation

Bullying prevention programs (the KiVA program is also notable)

Measuring Bullying Victimization, Perpetration and Bystander Experiences, Centers for Disease Control

Trauma-informed teaching

US Government Stop Bullying

Notes

1. Such differences could both result from being bullied (e.g. needing to scan faces for threat) and could also make being bullied more likely (e.g. misreading social cues leading to increased risk of being targeted).

2. Such programs focus on reducing negative messaging in order to keep stakeholders engaged, monitor and respond quickly to bullying, involve students in bullying prevention and detection in positive ways (e.g. being an “upstander” instead of a bystander), monitor more closely for bullying when the risk is higher (e.g. after anti-bullying trainings), respond fairly with the understanding that bullies often have problems of their own and need help, involved parents and teachers in anti-bullying education, and devote specific resources for anti-bullying.

References

Sarah Halliday, Tess Gregory, Amanda Taylor, Christianna Digenis & Deborah Turnbull (2021): The Impact of Bullying Victimization in Early Adolescence on Subsequent Psychosocial and Academic Outcomes across the Adolescent Period: A Systematic Review, Journal of School Violence, DOI: 10.1080/15388220.2021.1913598

Copeland WE, Wolke D, Angold A, Costello EJ. Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(4):419–426. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504

Bo Hu, PhD, Is Bullying Victimization in Childhood Associated With Mental Health in Old Age, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 76, Issue 1, January 2021, Pages 161–172, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbz115

Muetzel RL, Mulder RH, Lamballais S, Cortes Hidalgo AP, Jansen P, Güroğlu B, Vernooiji MW, Hillegers M, White T, El Marroun H and Tiemeier H (2019) Frequent Bullying Involvement and Brain Morphology in Children. Front. Psychiatry 10:696. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00696

Midgett, A., Doumas, D.M. Witnessing Bullying at School: The Association Between Being a Bystander and Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms. School Mental Health 11, 454–463 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-019-09312-6

Idsoe, T., Dyregrov, A. & Idsoe, E.C. Bullying and PTSD Symptoms. J Abnorm Child Psychol 40, 901–911 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-012-9620-0

Fraguas D, Díaz-Caneja CM, Ayora M, Durán-Cutilla M, Abregú-Crespo R, Ezquiaga-Bravo I, Martín-Babarro J, Arango C. Assessment of School Anti-Bullying Interventions: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Pediatr. 2021 Jan 1;175(1):44-55. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.3541. PMID: 33136156; PMCID: PMC7607493.

Plexousakis SS, Kourkoutas E, Giovazolias T, Chatira K and Nikolopoulos D (2019) School Bullying and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms: The Role of Parental Bonding. Front. Public Health 7:75. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00075

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