How Bullying Harms the Brain
Research pinpoints the brain-damaging force of bullying.
Bullying is seen as a moral issue, but a meta-analysis of research shows it's a medical issue.
Bullying, along with child maltreatment, can do physical damage to important brain regions.
The physical harm bullying does to the brain shows up in poor academic performance and mental illness.
Two researchers have found that bullying damages a number of brain regions in children. The damage is such that victims fail to understand social cues, fail to think clearly, and fail to have a handle on their own behavior and emotions. It’s devastating.
Researchers Iryna Palamarchuk and Tracy Vaillancourt conducted a meta-analysis of studies, including their own studies, on the impact of bullying victimization on the developing brains of children. Although they focused on the amygdala, fusiform gyrus, insula, striatum, and prefrontal cortex, they acknowledge that the negative effects of bullying are not limited to such areas of the brain. They explain that neurological interplay between the regions "contributes to the sensitivity toward facial expressions, poor cognitive reasoning, and distress that affect behavioral modulation and emotion regulation."
In other words, when damage occurs to these brain regions, the victim may misinterpret or overreact to someone’s facial expressions. While a person may show surprise, the victim’s brain, harmed by bullying, may read the facial expression as angry or threatening. The brain regions malfunction. in a sense, because of bullying.
Victims may also struggle to use their rational mind to problem-solve or make decisions. Their cognition, the ability to think through challenges and problems, is impaired by bullying. Furthermore, their distressed brain may struggle to self-regulate or modulate their conduct. Likewise, their bullied brain may struggle to manage emotional outbursts or withdrawals.
What’s makes these injuries to the brain even more distressing is that they are invisible to the naked eye and thus most in society do not even know they have occurred. Victims know they are struggling, but few would be informed that it’s because a series of regions in their brain have been harmed. Most concerning: if we do not know the brain is hurt, we do not set in motion the care needed for the brain to repair and recover. This is tragic because in fact the brain is innately wired to heal with evidence-based interventions.
How do children react who are victimized by bullying?
One manifestation discussed by Palamarchuk and Vaillancourt focuses on the way in which brain responses that naturally protect the target are thrown out of whack by the repeat nature of most bullying. Withdrawal, for instance, is an effective way the brain responds to threat out in the world, but if bullying behavior happens repeatedly, this normally healthy brain response tilts into unhealthy territory.
The way bullying harms brain regions can lead to “the development of mental health problems including anxiety, depression, psychosis, psychosomatic and eating disorders among bullied children.” Some children may develop emotional numbing, associated with further harm to the brain, seen in post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD).
It is well-established and frequently discussed in educational and parental circles that children targeted by bullying often see a drop in their grades. What is missing, however, is the brain science that informs us that poor academic performance is likely a result of “neurophysiological changes like the ones found in maltreated children.”
What kind of physical brain changes do researchers document in maltreated and bullied brains?
Children who are abused by adults or bullied by peers may show signs of “suppressed neurogenesis, stress-associated delayed myelination, as well as distorted apoptosis.” Scientists know that our brains produce new cells throughout our lifespan. When a brain is being abused or bullied, brain-imaging reveals, the birth of new brain cells, or neurogenesis, is compromised and in some cases halted.
Scientists know that myelination is the way the brain creates efficient, rapid, superhighways of information transmission in the brain. Myelin is a fatty insulator that wraps around axons and allow the brain to wire-in skills and knowledge through repeated practice and dedication to achievement. Children who are being maltreated or bullied suffer from delays in the critical process of laying down the myelin that helps people capitalize on their talents.
Moreover, among the bullied and abused, a normal process of apoptosis, or cell death, is “elevated.” The cycle of cell birth and cell death is put into a state of imbalance. The target’s brain struggles to birth new cells while at the same time an elevated number of cells are dying. As a result, targets suffer anxiety, depression, PTSD, poor academic performance and yet rarely know that their brain is unwell and needs help.
Chances are very good that those who abuse and bully do not know that the way they act is causing damage to a child’s brain.
It is time to educate everyone about the seriously harmful impact of bullying on the brain
As Palamarchuk and Vaillancourt demonstrate in their own studies, and in the meta-analyses they undertake into extensive research being conducted internationally, child maltreatment and peer bullying harm regions of the brain in very serious and lasting ways. This knowledge needs to be shared with all adults who are in positions of trust and authority over children.
Parents, teachers, coaches, doctors, social workers, mental health professionals need to use every opportunity to help children understand that the epidemic of mental illness in youth populations could be lessened if it were widely and known that all forms of child maltreatment and bullying do damage to regions in the brain. Physical bullying may visibly harm the brain, but far more insidious is emotional, psychological, social-relational, and cyberbullying, as the damage they do to the brain is unseen. Emotional neglect, ignoring, ostracizing also does deadly harm, but cannot be seen.
Where the damage can be seen and documented is in brain imaging. The knowledge researchers have grained through noninvasive technology establishes that bullying can no longer be understood merely as a moral issue. It must be understood as a medical crisis as serious as catching a potentially fatal virus.
There need to be public service announcements about the devastating invisible neurological scars bullying and child maltreatment leave on the brain. The damage can be seen on brain scans. Even more important, the damage can be repaired once acknowledged and identified.
I. Palamarchuk & T. Vaillancourt. (2022). “Integrative Brain Dynamics in Childhood Bullying Victimization.” 2022 Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 16:1-24.