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School Aged Children and Bullying: Influence on the Adulthood Inflammatory Response

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 by KungFuPlum (deviantART)

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.”


  • cnesbitt1

    Bullying is one of those things that will always be present in society. There will always be bullies and there will always be victims almost anywhere you can think of; but the sad part about it is that this study suggests that bullying can be correlated to health effects. The CRP levels were monitored and suggested potential health effects particularly on inflammation. The victims in this study seemed to be ones that were effected which doesn’t surprise me, having greater increases in inflammation than the bullies. I’m always looking for prevention and I was wondering if there were activities to give the bullies the social status their looking for, but yet help the victims? I found that athletic activities and professional or academic success are ways for bullies to maintain their high social status, but yet lower the inflammation levels of the victims. Taking your anger/aggression out in some sort of activity seems to help most of the time.

  • James Padgett

    I am not surprised to learn that bullying may have lasting effects on children into adulthood. While measured levels of CRP may be increased in those who were bullied, can it be tied DIRECTLY to bullying? It states in the article that CRP may be elevated due to poor nutrition, lack of sleep etc. Could the bullying be causing the children to practice poor nutrition and also cause them to lose sleep at night, thus causing their CRP levels to be elevated? I’m not quite sure I am onboard with the DIRECT link between bullying and elevated CRP and chronic low grade inflammation, but I do believe that the bullying could have an effect on the child’s lifestyle and in turn cause the elevated CRP levels.

  • CGilbert7

    This study just emphasizes the seriousness of bullying. Not only is it detrimental to the child’s mental health but cause physical health problems that last into adulthood. In my opinion, not enough has been done to prevent bullying in schools in this country. Most people believe that it inevitable and just another part of childhood. Maybe with this new information, more can be done to prevent these long-term effects of bullying. Health professionals can monitor CRP levels in children and develop ways to treat victims of bullying in order to prevent chronic, systemic inflammation in adulthood.
    I also find it bitterly ironic that bullies may actually be protected from this low-grade inflammation, unlike their victims, due to their successful social status.

    • Michael Tucker

      I agree there needs to be something done about bullying. One study states that they had success with a program that lowered the amount of bullying throughout the few schools where the program was implemented. However, I don’t think any program would be implicated to test individual children’s CRP levels due the cost of such a program. I believe that the mental/emotional stress caused from bullying is not only leading to an increase in CRP but also hurting the children’s immune response leading to other medical issues. Maybe the bullies CRP levels are lower because when bullying they are releasing any stress and anger they have pent up. I wonder what the CRP levels would be in the people that defend against bullying?

    • Kathleen Crosby

      I would have to agree. Bullying is very serious and has only gotten worse over the years. Nowadays, there is not only bullying face-to-face in school, but also cyber bullying and many others. Children are just being raised differently also. I have witnessed bullying many times and when a child is spoiled or can get whatever they want from their parents, they are just going to expect the same from everyone else. Privileged children, majority of the time, do not understand how blessed they are and do not realize how other less privileged children live. Schools are not doing nearly enough to control this problem and I am not surprised at the effects of bullying on the body physically. It can break a person down and make him/her feel worthless.

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