Bullying can make children’s lives a misery and cause lifelong health problems – but scientists are discovering powerful ways to fight it.
Lady Gaga, Shawn Mendes, Blake Lively, Karen Elson, Eminem, Kate Middleton, and Mike Nichols – these are just a few people who have spoken about their experiences of being victims of bullying at school, and the pain that it has caused them in childhood and later life. My own nemeses were a pair of Daniels from rural Yorkshire. They had the habit of mimicking and mocking everything I said so that I barely dared to speak in class.
Anyone who has been victimized as a child will understand the feelings of shame that these kinds of experiences can bring. And the consequences do not stop there. Recent research suggests that the effects of childhood bullying can linger for decades, with long-lasting changes that can put us at a greater risk of mental and physical illness.
Such findings are leading an increasing number of educationalists to shift their views of bullying – from an inevitable element of growing up, to a violation of children’s human rights.
“People used to think that bullying is a normal behavior, and in some instances, that it could even be a good thing – because it builds character,” explains Louise Arseneault, a professor of developmental psychology at King’s College London in the UK. “It took a long time for [researchers] to start considering bullying behavior as something that can be really harmful.”
With this change of mind, many researchers are now testing various anti-bullying schemes – with some exciting new strategies to create a kinder school environment.
Inflamed mind, inflamed body
There can be little doubt that bullying is a serious risk to children’s mental health in the short term, with the most notable consequences being elevated anxiety, depression, and paranoid thinking. While some of these symptoms may naturally vanish after the bullying stops, many victims continue to suffer from a higher risk of mental illness.
According to a recent paper in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, a woman who has been bullied as a child is 27 times more likely to have a panic disorder as a young adult. Among men, childhood bullying resulted in an 18-fold increase in suicidal ideation and action. “There are all these associations, which are robust and replicated across different samples,” says Arseneault.
Bullying will also have protracted consequences for people’s social lives: many victims find it harder to make friends in later life and are less likely to live with a long-term partner. One possibility is that they struggle to trust the people around them. “Kids who’ve been bullied, might interpret social relationships in a more threatening way,” says Arseneault. Finally, there are the academic and economic costs. Bullying harms people’s grades, which in turn reduces their job prospects – meaning that they are more likely to experience financial instability and unemployment in young adulthood and midlife.
Exposure to bullying as a child is linked to markedly higher levels of inflammation at age 45
Arseneault’s research suggests that the resulting stress can take a toll on the body for decades after the event. Analyzing data from a 50-year-long longitudinal study, she found that frequent bullying between the ages of seven and 11 was linked to markedly higher levels of inflammation at age 45. Importantly, the link remained even after she had controlled for a host of other factors, including their diet, physical activity, and whether they smoked. That’s important since elevated inflammation can disrupt the immune system and contributes to the wear and tear on our organs which leads to conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Taken together, these findings suggest that attempts to eliminate bullying are not only a moral imperative to alleviate children’s immediate suffering; they may bring long-term benefits for a population’s health.
When I was at school in the UK in the 90s and early 2000s, there were no systematic campaigns to tackle the wider problem of bullying. Teachers would chastise certain behaviors – if they were observed. But the responsibility was on the student to report the problem, which means that many cases were ignored. Some teachers would tacitly endorse bullying by turning a blind eye to obvious issues, while others – a rare but toxic minority – actively sided with the bullies.
Certain types of bullying may also be tolerated because they reflect broader social prejudices. For example, a significant proportion of children of lesbian mothers in a longitudinal study reported teasing or bullying because of their family type, though parental support buffered the impact. LGBTQ youth are also more likely to experience bullying and other aggression in school. Schools, however, have tended to ignore homophobic bullying in the past.
Fortunately, ongoing research can now provide some proven anti-bullying strategies that are known to help.
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is one of the most widely tested schemes. It was developed by the late Swedish-Norwegian psychologist, Dan Olweus, who spearheaded much of the early academic research on child victimization. The program is based on the idea that individual cases of bullying are often the product of a wider culture that tolerates victimization. As a result, it attempts to tackle the entire school ecosystem so that bad behavior can no longer flourish.
Like many interventions, the Olweus Program starts with a recognition of the problem. For this reason, schools should set up a survey to question the students about their experiences. “Knowing what is going on in your building is really important and can guide your bullying prevention efforts,” says Susan Limber, a professor in developmental psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina.
The Olweus Program encourages the school to set out very clear expectations for acceptable behavior – and the consequences if they breach those rules. “The [sanctions] should not be a surprise to the child,” Limber says. The adults must act as positive role models, who reinforce good behaviors and show zero tolerance for any forms of victimization. They should also learn to recognize the locations within the school where bullying is most likely to occur and to supervise them regularly. “Every adult in the school needs some basic training about bullying – the people who work in the cafeteria, the bus drivers, the custodian,” says Limber.
At the level of the classroom, the children themselves hold meetings to discuss the nature of bullying – and the ways that they can help students who are the victims of bad behavior. The aim, in all of this, is to ensure that the anti-bullying message is engrained in the institution’s culture.
Working with Olweus, Limber has tested the scheme in various settings, including a widescale roll out across more than 200 schools in Pennsylvania. Their analyses suggest that the program had resulted in 2,000 fewer cases of bullying over two years. Importantly, the researchers also saw changes in the school populations’ overall attitude to bullying, including greater empathy for victims.
Limber’s results are not alone in showing that systematic anti-bullying campaigns can bring about positive change. A recent meta-analysis, which examined the results of 69 trials, concluded that anti-bullying campaigns not only reduce victimization but also improve the general mental health of students.
Interestingly, the duration of the programs did not seem to predict their chances of success. “Even a few weeks of intervention were effective,” says David Fraguas, at the Institute of Psychiatry and Mental Health, Hospital Clínico San Carlos, in Madrid, who was the study’s first author.
Despite the strong evidence, these interventions have not yet been incorporated into most counties’ national education programs, however. “We are not doing what we now know to be effective,” he says.
Sharing is caring
Bullying does not just end in school, of course, and Limber argues that parents and caregivers should be on the lookout for signs of a problem. “You should be proactive in talking about the subject – don’t wait for it to come up,” she says. “You can have it as part of a conversation to check-in. You know, ‘How are things going with your friends? Do you have any troubles?’.”
She emphasizes that the adult must take the child’s concerns seriously – even if they seem trivial from an outside perspective – while also keeping a clear head. “Listen thoroughly and try to keep your emotions in check as you hear them out.” The caregiver should avoid making hasty suggestions of how the child can deal with the problem since this can sometimes create the sense that the victim is somehow to blame for the experience.
If appropriate, the parent or guardian should start a conversation with the school, who should immediately put together a plan to make sure the child feels safe. “The number one thing is to focus on that child and his or her experiences.”
Growing up is rarely going to be easy: children and adolescents are learning to navigate social relationships and that is going to come with hurt and upset. But as adults, we can do a much better job of teaching children, that certain kinds of behaviors are never acceptable: there is no one to blame but the bullies themselves. Such lessons could have a widespread impact on the health and happiness of many generations to come.
Every adult in the school needs some basic training about bullying: the people who work in the cafeteria, the bus drivers, the custodian – Susan Limber
By David Robson14th March 2022,