Bullying hurts — but peer support really helps | Science News for Students

Bullying hurts — but peer support really helps

Bullying can leave lasting scars, but some schools now use peer pressure to reduce social conflicts
Feb 7, 2017 — 7:10 am EST
upset girl

Bullying — or “drama” or “intimidation”— can make kids more susceptible to mental illness as adults. But some schools are reducing conflicts by putting peer pressure to good use.


As a child, Belinda (not her real name) got teased for being short and “more sporty” than other girls. She now realizes the kids who taunted her “were kind of jealous of me.” Bullying might have been “a defense mechanism,” she says. Since then, she’s seen other kids getting bullied — and it hasn’t always been easy to do the right thing. Sometimes she’s stuck up for the victim. Other times she’s gone along with the crowd. Now a 10th grader at Ridgefield Park Junior-Senior High School in New Jersey, she thinks she “should have stuck up for more people instead of laughing or watching an incident occur.”

It’s normal for teens to worry about fitting in. Sometimes, though, the desire for acceptance leads to conflict and hurt. Teens might “get into a fight or use jokes or put-downs that they know their peers recognize and approve of,” says Elizabeth Paluck. She’s a psychologist at Princeton University in New Jersey. (Psychologists are scientists who study the mind.)

Whether fist punches fly or jeers ring out, bullying can leave deep scars. New studies show that kids who were bullied suffer more mental health problems, such as anxiety, as adults.

But peers also can exert a powerful influence for good, other studies find. Some schools, for example, have reduced bullying with a program that turns influential kids into positive change-makers.

Bullying takes big toll on victims — and attackers

Even well-meaning teens sometimes poke fun at another student or ignore an insult. They may get angry with a friend. Such anger might even prompt a fight. But these behaviors don’t necessarily count as bullying.

pink highlighter
Teasing or insults aren’t considered “bullying” unless the taunts reflect a power struggle.

“Part of growing up is being able to negotiate difficult social situations. All kids need to know how to do that,” says William Copeland. He’s a psychologist who studies children’s mental-health disorders at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C.

Big problems can arise when the jabs and taunts reflect a power struggle. Bullying constitutes picking on a weaker person over and over again, trying to hurt them. Teens may use different labels, such as “intimidation.” Or they might dismiss the behavior as “drama,” says Paluck. But kids who routinely endure such troubles tend to face bigger problems decades later. That’s the conclusion of several studies done in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. As longitudinal studies, they monitored impacts in the same people over many years.

In one, Copeland and his coworkers followed 1,420 young people in North Carolina for about 15 years. The researchers interviewed each participant, along with a parent or caregiver. They did this for each child four to six times while the student was between the ages of 9 and 16. Each time, the researchers asked if the child had experienced bullying at school — or had bullied others. They also asked kids if they had gotten depressed or anxious and how often.

Then, as young adults, these people were surveyed several more times. As part of these later surveys, the researchers also examined the participants for symptoms of common mental health disorders.

The results were clear: Childhood bullying took a toll.

sad teen girl with pink hair
Kids who are bullied face a higher risk of anxiety and depression later in life, studies show.

Its victims were more likely to suffer from anxiety and panic disorders as adults than were those who hadn’t been tormented as kids. Bullied kids who also bullied others were even more likely to suffer these problems. Especially disturbing, young men who had been both victims of bullying and bullies themselves were at elevated risk for thinking about committing suicide. Copeland and his group published their results in April 2013.

It’s not clear why being both a victim and a bully might pose a special risk for later mental-health problems, Copeland says. He notes that these adults tend to be more impulsive and aggressive than are people who had suffered no bullying themselves. In addition, victims of bullying often have poorer social skills. Those traits may mean that when they tried to gain control by bullying, they failed. And that may have further isolated them socially, he says.

Andre Sourander is a psychiatrist (a doctor who focuses on mental health problems) at the University of Turku in Finland. In 1989, he and some colleagues started following 5,034 people born 8 years earlier. They collected information on any mental-health symptoms. They also asked the kids whether they bullied others and how often other children had bullied them. Parents and teachers answered similar questions for each child. Later, the researchers looked at how these children fared between ages 16 and 29. They also reviewed medical records to see if any had seen mental-health specialists or been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, such as depression or anxiety.

subway tunnel
Research has shown that victims of bullying who also bullied others are especially likely to suffer mental health problems in young adulthood.

Compared with participants who were rarely tormented, victims of bullying were more than twice as likely to develop a psychiatric illness later in life. As in Copeland’s research, those who had been victims and bullies were at highest risk of mental health problems in adulthood. (What about the children who bullied others but were not bullied themselves? Only those who showed psychiatric symptoms at age 8 were likely to also do so when they were older.)

Sourander’s team reported its findings in the February 2016 JAMA Psychiatry.

The U.S. and Finnish studies used different methods. Still, they came to the same conclusion. That suggests researchers can be more confident in the findings, says Copeland. Those data show “how damaging bullying can be on children long-term,” he says. He hopes these results “encourage kids to stick up [for others] when they see friends being picked on.”

As damaging as abuse and neglect

Copeland has also compared the effects of bullying to the impacts of childhood abuse and neglect. In that study, he teamed up with psychologist Dieter Wolke at the University of Warwick in England.

The two studied 18-year-olds in the United States and United Kingdom. They asked these 5,446 young adults to describe childhood experiences of bullying, of physical abuse and any neglect. Then they identified any signs of mental health problems. These included anxiety, depression or attempts to cope with problems by injuring themselves. (This behavior is called self-harm.)

The results surprised the researchers. “The effects of bullying were stronger than being physically abused or neglected,” Wolke says. Indeed, he argues, bullying “throws a long shadow over people’s lives.”

That shadow can be physical as well as mental, adds Louise Arseneault. She’s a psychologist at King’s College in London.

In a recent study, she asked 45-year-olds if they had been bullied as kids. She also assessed the participants current health. Compared to people who were rarely bullied in childhood, those who had been victims of frequent bullying were more likely to be depressed or have suicidal thoughts. But that’s not all. These bullying victims also were more likely as adults to be obese — extremely overweight. And they had higher levels of a blood marker known as C-reactive protein (CRP). Studies have linked elevated CRP levels to an increased risk of heart disease.

Taken together, Copeland concludes, childhood-bullying exerted a lasting health toll into at least middle age.

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Sit With Us mobile app
A 16-year-old in southern California, named Natalie, created Sit With Us, a free mobile app to help kids find lunch tables and make new friends.
Photo: Carolyn Hampton; Screenshots: Natalie Hampton

Bullying can be prevented

Public opinions about bullying tend to fall into extremes, Arseneault says. Some people blame bullying for a range of problems. Others think the concerns are overblown. Overall, she believes, more people recognize bullying as “a serious problem for young children.” Unfortunately, she adds, this concern “does not always translate into real action. And this may be part of the problem.”

In 2011, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama organized a White House conference on bullying prevention. News accounts reported that the President said a key goal had been to “dispel the myth that bullying is … an inevitable part of growing up.” The event took place several months after several well-reported teen suicides. Many people believed these adolescents took their lives as a result of bullying at school and online.

One student killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. He had been an 18-year-old at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. The tragedy prompted state legislators to pass a law requiring anti-bullying programs at New Jersey public schools. Most U.S. states now have laws and policies that define bullying as unacceptable. (You can find out more about them here.) But there is no federal law telling schools how they should prevent the problem. And it’s hard to even tell if school programs are working.

Many anti-bullying programs, such as school assemblies and discussion groups, are run by teachers and other school staff. That’s not the most effective approach, says Paluck at Princeton. If people hope to change student behaviors, she says, “the message can’t come from adults.”

She and her Princeton coworkers came up with a new approach to cut school conflicts, including bullying. Students would lead these efforts. The key was identifying what Paluck calls social influencers. These are the 10 percent of students who get the most attention from their peers.

These are not necessarily the most popular kids in a school. But smaller peer groups tend to look to them “to figure out what behaviors are desirable and normal,” Paluck says. If social influencers took a public stand against bullying, maybe that would make such incidents uncool.

The researchers call their program Roots. It uses influential kids as “the roots of the movement,” Paluck explains. (When her team asked students about possible program names, Roots “was the one they were least able to make fun of.”)

roots program
A peer-led approach for reducing student conflicts, called Roots, uses exercises like those shown above to help teens brainstorm solutions to peer problems.
Elizabeth Paluck

The researchers invited public middle schools in New Jersey to test the approach. Each used questionnaires to identify social influencers. These included people like Belinda, who emerged from her childhood bullying experiences more aware of how hurtful such behaviors can be.

In surveys, students identified who they interacted with at school and on social media. These influencers, and some other students, received invitations to the Roots group at their school. The groups met every other week. School counselors encouraged students to talk about uncomfortable situations — for example, times when teens tell racial jokes or make fun of people for how they dress.

The Roots groups also brainstormed how to make positive changes. At Ridgefield Park Junior-Senior High School, teens came up with a fun idea. They organized a “mix it up” lunch period. Here, students were encouraged to talk to new people. Instead of eating with the same crowd, “you’d mix it up and change who you sit with,” explains Sunni Roberts. She’s a counselor at the school.

The event included activities and games. At one station, students thought of stereotypes — for example, “boys are better at math” or “girls cannot play all sports.” These ideas can provoke taunting or other conflicts. Students wrote the stereotypes on pieces of paper. They folded each paper into an airplane and flew them through a hoop. This was meant to symbolize how kids could get rid of such destructive mindsets, explains Roberts.

Across New Jersey, 56 schools took part in Roots groups as part of the Princeton experiment. School administrators tallied disciplinary events caused by peer conflicts. After one year, the number of incidents had dropped by 30 percent in schools with Roots programs — from 2,695 to 2,012. The benefits were highest in Roots groups with more social influencers. The researchers posted their findings last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also have posted the Roots curriculum online for other schools to use.

“Roots has made a difference in many ways,” says Belinda. “It has helped students open up and let others know when they’re being bullied.” Hopefully, equipping kids to stand against bullying also will lead to healthier lives in years to come.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

aggressive     (n. aggressiveness) Quick to fight or argue, or forceful in making efforts to succeed or win.

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

bullying     (v. to bully) A group of repeated behaviors that are mean-spirited. They can include teasing, spreading rumors about someone, saying hurtful things to someone and intentionally leaving someone out of groups or activities. Sometimes bullying can include attacks using violence (such as hitting), threats of violence, yelling at someone or abusing someone with violent language. Much bullying takes place in person. But it also may occur online, through emails or via text messages. Newer examples including making fake profiles of people on websites or posting embarrassing photos or videos on social media.

C-reactive protein (CRP)     A protein in blood that increases when widespread inflammation is present in the body. Elevated levels of CRP have been linked to increased risk for heart disease.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

curriculum     (plural: curricula) The official classroom materials (often readings) used to lead students through a course of study on a particular topic.

depression     A low spot, such as in a field or the surface of a rock. (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

disorder     (in medicine) A condition where the body does not work appropriately, leading to what might be viewed as an illness. This term can sometimes be used interchangeably with disease.

federal     Of or related to a country’s national government (not to any state or local government within that nation). For instance, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are both agencies of the U.S. federal government.

high school     A designation for grades nine through twelve in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

impulsive     (n. impulsivity) Quick to act; not willing to wait. Not waiting for deliberation or a weighing of consequences.

legislator     An elected official that belongs to a body that writes laws for the state or federal government. Senators and members of the House of Representatives, for instance, are legislators for the United States government.

longitudinal     (in research) Using data gathered from study subjects over a long period of time.

marker     (in biomedicine) The presence of some substance that usually can only be present because it signals some disease, pollutant or event (such as the attachment of some stain or molecular flag). As such, this substance will serve as a sign — or marker — of that related thing.

mechanism     The steps or process by which something happens or “works.” It may be the spring that pops something from one hole into another. It could be the squeezing of the heart muscle that pumps blood throughout the body. It could be the friction (with the road and air) that slows down the speed of a coasting car. Researchers often look for the mechanism behind actions and reactions to understand how something functions.

middle school     A designation for grades six through eight in the U.S. educational system. It comes immediately prior to high school. Some school systems break their age groups slightly different, including sixth grade as part of elementary school and then referring to grades seven and eight as “junior” high school.

mindset     In psychology, the belief about and attitude toward a situation that influences behavior. For instance, holding a mindset that stress may be beneficial can help improve performance under pressure.

obese     Adjective describing someone who is extremely overweight. Obesity is associated with a wide range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

online     A term that refers to things that can be found or done on the internet.

panic disorder     A type of anxiety disorder. Its victims frequently experience sudden attacks of overwhelming fear and panic. Panic attacks can happen without an obvious cause. They often include strong physical reactions. People having such an attack sometimes feel like they are losing control, can’t breathe or even are having a heart attack.

peer     Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences    A prestigious journal publishing original scientific research, begun in 1914. The journal's content spans the biological, physical, and social sciences. Each of the more than 3,000 papers published each year, now, not only is peer reviewed but also approved by a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

protein     Compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. The hemoglobin in blood and the antibodies that attempt to fight infections are among the better-known, stand-alone proteins. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

psychiatry     (adj. psychiatric) A field of medicine where doctors study and treat diseases of the human mind. Treatments may consist of talking therapies, prescription drugs or both. People who work in this field are known as psychiatrists.

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. 

questionnaire     A list of identical questions administered to a group of people to collect related information on each of them. The questions may be delivered by voice, online or in writing. Questionnaires may elicit opinions, health information (like sleep times, weight or items in the last day’s meals), descriptions of daily habits (how much exercise you get or how much TV do you watch) and demographic data (such as age, ethnic background, income and political affiliation).

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.

self-harm     Intentionally injuring one’s body. Examples may include cutting, scratching or burning oneself. This unhealthy behavior is typically a way this individual attempts to cope with emotional pain. It’s usually not intended as a suicide attempt. Also known as self-injury.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

social media     Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, that allow people to connect with each other (often anonymously) and to share information.

stereotype     A widely held view or explanation for something, which often may be wrong because it has been overly simplified.

suicidal     A mental state in which a person feels a strong impulse to take his or her own life (also known as committing suicide). Warning signs may include talking about wanting to die or about making plans to commit suicide; saying goodbye to people as if this person won’t ever see them again; taking steps to make it possible to commit suicide, such as obtaining a gun or drugs that could cause death; being obsessed with the subject of death or dying; and withdrawing from social contact in a way that is unusual for that person.

survey     (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

symptom     A physical or mental indicator generally regarded to be characteristic of a disease. Sometimes a single symptom — especially a general one, such as fever or pain — can be a sign of any of many different types of injury or disease.

trait     A characteristic feature of something. (in genetics) A quality or characteristic that can be inherited.

United Kingdom     Often referred to as Britain, its roughly 60 million people live in the four “countries” of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. More than 80 percent of the UK’s inhabitants live in England. Many people — including UK residents — argue whether the UK is a country or instead a confederation of four separate countries. The United Nations and most foreign governments treat the UK as a single nation.


Journal: M.L. Ybarra et al. Stepwise development of a text messaging-based bullying prevention program for middle school students (BullyDown). Journal of Medical Internet Research. Published online June 13, 2016. doi: 10.2196/mhealth.4936.

Journal: A. Sourander et al. Association of bullying behavior at 8 years of age and use of specialized services for psychiatric disorders by 29 years of age. JAMA Psychiatry. Vol. 73, February 2016, p. 159. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.2419.

Journal: E.L. Paluck et al. Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences
. Vol. 113, January 2016, p. 566.  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1514483113.

Journal: R. Takizawa et al. Bullying victimization in childhood predicts inflammation and obesity at mid-life: A five-decade birth cohort study. Psychological Medicine. Vol. 45, October 2015, p. 2705. doi: 10.1017/S0033291715000653.

Journal: D. Wolke and S.T. Lereya. Long-term effects of bullying. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Vol. 100, September 2015, p. 879. doi:  10.1136/archdischild-2014-306667.

Journal: S.T. Lereya et al. Adult mental health consequences of peer bullying and maltreatment in childhood: Two cohorts in two countries. The Lancet Psychiatry. Published online April 28, 2015. doi:  10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00165-0.

Journal: R. Takizawa et al. Adult health outcomes of childhood bullying victimization: Evidence from a five-decade longitudinal British birth cohort. American Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 171, July 2014, p. 777. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13101401.

Journal: W.E. Copeland et al. Childhood bullying involvement predicts low-grade systemic inflammation into adulthood. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences
. Vol. 111, May 27, 2014, p, 7570. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1323641111.

Journal: W.E. Copeland et al. Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. Vol. 70, April 2013, p. 419. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504.

Further Reading