Bullying and the Brain: The Neuroscience of Bullying

As a young, school-going kid there are a lot of things that are rights of passage- your first invite to a birthday party, your first relationship, your high school graduation, and, for girls one of the most important, your first period. Bullying, unfortunately, has joined this list. In a National Crime Victimization Survey conducted in 2013, 65% of participating students reported being bullied at least once or twice a year. And that’s just traditional bullying- nowadays the fear doesn’t just end with the schoolyard. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have become fair game for cyber bullying, which is terrifying for both its anonymity and pervasiveness.

Most people know the psychological effects of bullying- depression, anxiety, isolation and, in extreme cases, suicide. This sort of psychological distress, while very real, is often written off as a part of usual teenage angst. Since so many of us have had to live through some iteration of peer-related humiliation or bullying, we often consider it a common occurrence- a ‘not so bad’ sort of cruelty that ‘everyone’ goes through. After all, it’s not like there are any obvious injuries, the only thing that really gets hurt are our feelings…right?

Recent research, however, seems to suggest that’s not the case. Plenty of research has been done on the lasting neurological effects of sexual and physical abuse on kids during early childhood. The neurological scars of bullying are similar to those who sustain such abuse, making bullying a traumatic childhood experience that should be taken much more seriously than it is at the moment.

Bullying and the Brain: Schoolyard Cruelty
Bullying and the Brain: Schoolyard Cruelty

Bullying and the Brain: Psychological Effects

These are the effects and consequences that are most publicized about bullying, but should nevertheless be taken seriously. People often think that bullying is just a psychological issue- that all the long- term effects would just be emotional stunting that would make it difficult to be happy throughout adulthood. But these effects are serious. If you have experienced repeated bullying, you are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, extremely low self-esteem, body image issues, and drug abuse. You may experience changes in sleeping and eating habits, and a loss of pleasure in hobbies. You may not feel motivated which can lead to a lower GPA, skipping school, or even dropping out. While these aren’t medical issues, studies show that psychological issues can manifest themselves in health symptoms. You may experience an increase in health complaints such as headaches or stomach issues because your body is trying to tell you something- you are not okay.

Bullying and the Brain: Neurological Effects

Being Stressed Out

It is no surprise that bullying can be stressful. However, scientists are just beginning to figure out how this stress is negatively affecting the developing brain in the long run. Stress hormones are necessary for the body in many ways. Epinephrine is the hormone that triggers our “fight-or-flight” response that has kept our species alive. Our body needs stress hormones such as Cortisol to help us perform tasks better, improve our memory, increase heart function, and even make our body more resistant to infection. Good amounts of stress make us perform at our very best. However, when the short-term buzz turns into persistent, chronic stress, it starts to have negative effects on the body.

It can make your immune system function less effectively- making you more vulnerable to infection and sickness. High levels of Cortisol can also damage and kill neurons, especially in the hippocampal region. The hippocampus is the part of your brain responsible for consolidating information– transferring it from short-term memory to long-term memory. For example, in Alzheimer’s, the hippocampus is one of the main regions to first become damaged- leading to disorientation and memory loss. Damaging the neurons in the hippocampus at an early age can lead to memory issues that make school and learning more difficult. Studies have shown that those who are bullied do worse on verbal and standardized tests than those who are not. In a different test using rats, it was shown that those that were bullied experienced impaired neurogenesis– the creation of new neurons. New neurons were still made, but they died before they were fully finished.

Abnormalities in the Corpus Callosum

Those who have experienced bullying have, studies have shown, abnormalities in their corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a bundle of fibers that are vital to the brain because it connects the left and right hemispheres. This structure is needed for cross hemisphere processing of visual, memory, and other stimuli. In those who are bullied, the neurons in this part of the brain were impaired because they had less myelin. Myelin is an insulation coating on neurons that helps speed up signals. So, if there is less coating, that means neuronal signals travel slower which is significant considering signals in the brain travel within milliseconds. While scientists are still looking into the direct effects of corpus callosum abnormalities, it could be associated with cognitive deficits, impaired ability to focus, concentrate and complete tasks. The reduction in myelin sheathing could impede processing of one’s surroundings in a variety of ways that are still being explored.

And the Cycle Continues

Victims of bullying may face another struggle that is, arguably, worse than the others: becoming the bullies themselves. Preliminary studies have shown that the extreme social stress brought on by bullying could lead to increased aggression in the victim. This could be due to the fact that bullying has shown to alter levels of neurotransmitters such as vasopressin and serotonin, which deal with aggression. During adolescence, chemical levels are often volatile and are easily influenced. While the specifics of how this works is still up in the air, studies have shown that chronic stress is likely to make victims bullies in the long run as well.

Bullying and the Brain: Victims Turn into Bullies
Bullying and the Brain: Victims Turn into Bullies

Bullying is not a right of passage- it is a form of abuse that has the same neurological effects, and therefore should be treated with equal seriousness. We have made strides in holding schools accountable for the well-being of young kids. Thanks to cases such as the landmark case Nabozny vs. Podlesny. Schools are liable and accountable for not stopping abuse. While biological and neurological symptoms should not be taken any more seriously than psychological symptoms, the fact of the matter is they are. The more neurological evidence we discover about bullying and the brain, the more people will hopefully take bullying seriously. If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these effects, consider getting help or taking action to stop it. Standing up for yourself can save you from a possible lifetime of consequences.

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