Movies are filled with bullies. In the 1980s, there was that raccoon-hat-wearing terror, Scut Farkus, in A Christmas Story, who made the narrator fear walking home from school. In the early 2000s, Regina George in Mean Girls personified the calculating bully who used verbal abuse and social isolation to harass other students. And Nelson on The Simpsons has bullied others for the last 34 years.
Bullying is a common storyline because it’s common in real life. Twenty-two percent of kids ages 12 to 18 have reported being the victim of bullying in the previous year, with kids in middle school experiencing it more often than high schoolers.
Researchers are learning more about bullying to understand how these traumatic social interactions impact a child’s developing brain. Currently, imaging technology has allowed scientists to identify a possible link between bullying and distinct changes in the brain.
What Is Bullying?
Scholars don’t have one definition of bullying, but they tend to agree that bullying is ongoing aggressive behavior among kids and teens who are not siblings or in a dating relationship. The aggression is unwanted, and both the victim and the bully perceive a type of power imbalance that allows the perpetrator to feel they can harass without penalty.
Bullying can be physical, psychological or social. Physical bullying typically refers to any type of bodily harm like kicking, hitting or pushing. Psychological bullying involves verbal abuse intended to inflict emotional injury. Social bullying is about isolating or ostracizing the victim. With social bullying, the bully might ignore the victim and encourage others to do the same. Or they might spread rumors to ruin the victim’s reputation and relationship with others.
With bullying, the perceived imbalance of power can make it so the victim doesn’t feel there is any recourse. Often, the victim will make changes to their routine so they can avoid the bully. They might quit a sports team, switch to a different lunch table or start riding their bike to school to avoid seeing the bully at the bus stop.
How Does Bullying Change the Brain?
Currently, researchers have identified a link between being a victim of bullying and having a thicker cortex in the fusiform gyrus.
In a 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers followed a cohort of children for over a decade, starting with the months before birth. The study involved 2,602 children living in the Netherlands.
When the children were about eight years old, the researchers sent questionnaires to their teachers and parents to ask whether the child was involved in ongoing bullying — of any kind — as either the victim, the perpetrator or both. The questionnaires asked questions like, ‘In the past few months, how often has your child been bullied by insults, been called names, or been laughed at.’
Of the participants, 82 were identified as bullies, 92 were victims and 47 had been both. (According to the study, the remaining participants were not known to have been involved with significant, ongoing bullying.) When the kids involved in bullying reached 10, they were asked to undergo a high-resolution structural MRI. The team wanted to estimate the cortical thickness across the cortical mantle.
The researchers found that kids who were victims of bullying had a thicker cortex in the fusiform gyrus compared to kids who didn’t have any bullying problems. (When making this measurement, the researchers were mindful of other influences on brain development, such as socioeconomic factors, intelligence level and psychiatric symptoms.)
What Are the Effects of Bullying on Behavior?
In the Dutch study, the researchers concluded the thicker cortex might be related to how the victims learn to perceive threats of violence. This is consistent with how other studies have found that children who experience violence learn to scan their environments for potential threats more so than children who do not.
Children who are spanked, for example, showed greater activation in several regions of their medial and lateral prefrontal cortex when they were asked to view images of different faces. The researchers concluded that spanking changes a child’s brain in the sense that they scan facial expressions to determine a potential threat.
Both of these studies support what researchers call the “negative hypothesis,” which is currently the favored explanation as to how children who experience violence learn to scan their environment.
A 2022 study in Adolescent Research Review conducted a literature review to analyze whether studies favored the negative, reaffiliation or desensitization hypothesis. With negative, the victim developed the tendency to scan for negative social cues to avoid future violence. In contrast, reaffiliation meant the victim tried to focus on positive social cues in hopes of salvaging the social interaction. The desensitization hypothesis held that victims simply become numb to social cues.
The authors looked at 142 articles between 1998 and 2021. The studies had an average of 1,600 participants (range was 14 to 25,685 participants) with an average age of 11.4 (age range of 4.1 to 17).
The literature primarily upheld the negative hypothesis and found evidence that the torment changes victims of bullying. They enter future social interactions with a tendency to look for potential threats.
The Dutch study’s finding of the thicker cortex among bullying victims would fit this theory as the area involved included the Brodmann area 37, which is associated with various functions, including facial and emotional processing.
Thus, researchers have found that one possible neurological change from bullying is heightened by the victim’s awareness of negative threats.