Bullying Isn't Just "a Part of Growing Up" — It's Altering Our Kids' Brains

Bullying isn't just a normal part of life that most everyone "has" to deal with as they grow up. It's wrong, it's preventable, and researchers have found that peer victimization has long-term effects on mental health and could actually be affecting your child's developing brain. In a study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, it was found that teens who are bullied are at higher risk for mental illnesses and could experience shrinkage in parts of their brains.

The IMAGEN study, which looked at nearly 700 14- to 19-year-olds in England, Ireland, France, and Germany, assessed the participants' brain development through questionnaires about bullying at ages 14, 16, and 19, as well as brain scans at ages 14 and 19. The study's lead researcher, Erin Burke Quinlan, shared that as many as three out of 10 kids are victims of bullying (sometimes daily), and through the surveys, it was found that about five percent of the study's participants were characterized as victims of "chronic bullying."

Through the brain scans, it was found that those teens who were bullied experienced shrinkage in two parts of their brains — the "caudate" and "putamen" — between ages 14 and 19. "We found that the relationship between chronic peer victimization — an umbrella term that includes bullying — relates to the development of anxiety partly via changes in the volume of brain structures," Quinlan said. "Although not classically considered relevant to anxiety, the importance of structural changes in the putamen and caudate to the development of anxiety most likely lies in their contribution to related behaviors such as reward sensitivity, motivation, conditioning, attention, and emotional processing."

It was found that about five percent of the study's participants were characterized as victims of "chronic bullying."

Researchers are unsure as to whether these brain changes are irreversible. "We would need to follow adolescents into adulthood to start to answer this question," Quinlan said, noting, however, that preventing bullying in the first place would help make it so there wouldn't be a need to reverse such changes in the first place. "While prevention still takes resources and education, it's likely easier than trying to reverse brain changes years later."

Stephen Russell, a professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin, said the study's findings suggest "an obvious link between bullying, stress and long-term health" and that "Hopefully this will be additional data that will help change the minds of people who think that bullying is 'natural' or a normal part of growing up."

Although many children deal with bullying and grow up with no mental health issues, it's important for parents, teachers, and school districts to put practices into play that can combat bullying. Quinlan said, of the brain changes associated with bullying, "We don't know how early in life these brain changes begin. But the earlier bullying is identified, and the sooner it can be dealt with, the better."