By Roberta Attanasio
Bullying can happen anywhere and to anyone. According to stopbullying.com, a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “Bullying is 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. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”
Children can play many roles in bullying — they can bully others, they can be bullied, or they may actively or passively assist the bullying behavior or defend against it. Kids who bully and kids who are bullied are those involved in the so-called “direct roles in bullying”.
Bullying is known to have many adverse consequences on physical and mental health, with some persisting into adulthood. These adverse health effects may be present in everyone — those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. Now, results of a new study show that bullied children may experience chronic, systemic inflammation that persists into adulthood, while bullies may actually reap health benefits of increasing their social status through bullying.
The study (Childhood bullying involvement predicts low-grade systemic inflammation into adulthood), published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 12, 2014), is based on data from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, a robust, population-based study that has gathered information on 1,420 individuals for more than 20 years. Individuals were randomly selected to participate in the prospective study, and therefore were not at a higher risk of mental illness or being bullied.
The team that carried out the study included researchers from the University of Warwick, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University. They analyzed three groups of participants: victims of bullying, those who were both bullies and victims, and those who were purely bullies. Participants were interviewed throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. In addition, the researchers collected blood samples from the study participants to measure levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of low-grade inflammation and a risk factor for health problems including metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
William Copeland (Duke University School of Medicine), one of the researchers, said in a press release “”CRP levels are affected by a variety of stressors, including poor nutrition, lack of sleep and infection, but we’ve found that they are also related to psychosocial factors. By controlling for participants’ pre-existing CRP levels, even before involvement in bullying, we get a clearer understanding of how bullying could change the trajectory of CRP levels.”
Results from the study show that victims of bullying suffer from greater increases in low-grade systemic inflammation from childhood to young adulthood than are seen in others. In contrast, bullies exhibit lower increases in inflammation into adulthood compared with those not involved in bullying.
“Our study found that a child’s role in bullying can serve as either a risk or a protective factor for low-grade inflammation,” Copeland said. “Enhanced social status seems to have a biological advantage. However, there are ways children can experience social success aside from bullying others.”