The Bullied Mind

Bullying by elementary and high school students has been around for as long as anyone can remember. However, the modern form of bullying, using texting, email, and social media is much more recent. The use of technology for bullying, known as cyberbullying, has made bullying far more widespread and vicious, and has led to many adolescents taking their own or others’ lives. According to studies at Yale University, victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than nonvictims. In the United States, about one in four children are bullied on a regular basis. This poses an enormous problem for our education system.

In Clare Vanderpool’s novel “Moon Over Manifest,” the main character, Abilene, says, “Children are universal, in a way. Every school has the ones who think they’re a little better than everybody else and the ones who are a little poorer than everybody else. And somewhere in the mix, there’s usually ones who are pretty decent.” What Abilene describes as universal among schoolchildren also pertains to those schoolchildren who bully others, the ones who are insecure and need to have power over others. Although research indicates that there is no single reason that causes someone to bully, one major contributing factor is based on the bully’s need for control.

“Bullies are often insecure within themselves and feel a lack of control in their own lives, and for that reason they seek power and control over others in order to hide their own insecurities. It is all about power and control, and confronting them or stepping in to stop them usurps their sense of power,” says Denise Wolk, director of publications and senior program associate for Educators for Social Responsibility (now called Engaging Schools). In her article “Beyond the Bullies: Bystanders and Instigators Enable Aggression,” she indicates that bullying in schools and cyberbullying are fairly frequent and serious problems that are often precursors to aggressive and violent behavior. Educators, working in concert with parents and community members, can significantly reduce bullying behavior.

Defining Bullying and Types of Bullying

Bullying is defined as repeated and unwanted aggressive behavior that occurs over a period of time with an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. Bullying behaviors can take many forms, including physical, verbal, intimidation, social exclusion, racist remarks, sexual harassment, homophobic attacks, and, increasingly, the use of social media and technology. Cyberbullying involves sending insulting texts, Facebook messages, pictures, tweets, and emails to victims and their peers, often to make someone else feel small or insignificant. Girls who bully are more likely to use verbal and social media methods, while boys who bully are more prone to using physical violence.

According to Ethan Watters in “Bullyproofing Your Children,” an article published by Liberty Mutual Insurance’s Responsibility Project, we’re seeing some decline in bullying, but, as we’ve become more aware of the problem, it has become clear that lots of children are involved in it, much more than we ever thought. The game-changer is cyberbullying. It has increased the number of children involved in bullying, and the anonymity of it means that children do it without seeing a reaction, so there are fewer social cues to regulate it. That’s more dangerous, and scarier. The viral nature of technology has allowed bullying to stay out there forever. Children have no safe place anymore. They can’t go home and get away from it.

Potential Effects of Bullying

“Well, I can really relate as a victim to cyberbullying,” said one bullied student when we interviewed him. “I was bullied from kindergarten all through grade school through social media. I could not get away from bullying when at home. I was often bullied because of the complexion of my skin and the texture of my hair. I was different than the white children and different from the black children, so I was seen as weak and an outsider. I got my braids pulled on a daily basis. People bully because they think that you won’t react, because if the majority sees you as different, then, as a young child, you believe you must be.” The bully usually gets support from other children so they won’t in turn be bullied. Those same children stand by watching in fear that they will become a victim themselves.

Stopbullying.gov, a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, seems to support this victim’s personal account. According to a federal study, students who are bullied can experience negative physical, educational, and mental health issues. Often, students who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, decreased academic achievement — in GPA and standardized test scores — and school participation. They are more likely to have health problems and miss, skip or drop out of school. These issues may persist into adulthood.

A very small number of bullied children might retaliate through extremely violent measures. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that in 12 of 15 school-shooting cases in the 1990s, with an increase since that time, the shooters had a history of being bullied. More recently, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a Florida girl, committed suicide in September 2013 after being bullied. Her suicide prompted the arrest of two young girls who allegedly bullied her, and their mothers were also arrested, accused of assisting with the bullying. “Rebecca grew up in a disturbing environment, not unlike the one her two accused bullies were raised in,” says Polk County, Florida, Sheriff Grady Judd. Bullied children who live through the experience often spend their adulthood casting themselves in similar roles, perpetuating the cycle.

The Brain and Bullying

A study by Rockefeller University published in ScienceDaily reveals that there are long-lasting chemical and structural brain changes from bullying that account for the cognitive and emotional damage that can be as severe as the harm done by child abuse. Also, the fear, threats, insults, and ridicule experienced by victims of bullying can lead to chronic stress conditions negatively affecting several parts of the brain: the corpus callosum, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.

McLean Hospital researcher Dr. Martin Teicher scanned the brains of bullying victims and found significant shrinkage in the corpus callosum — the brain tissue that connects the left and right hemispheres. This makes it difficult for victims to process what is happening around them and to respond appropriately.

The amygdala is the brain’s alarm center, with emotions associated with fight-or-flight response. In response to bullies’ threats, fear, and anger are activated in this part of our brain. When the amygdala is repeatedly activated or “hijacked” — caused by a state of constant fear of danger, physical harm, or threats — the brain is in a constant state of arousal. A “hijacked amygdala,” a term invented by Daniel Goleman (“Emotional Intelligence”), acts as if the radar is finely tuned, always ready to pick up the slightest hint of a threat. It is very difficult to concentrate, remember, and learn when the brain is always scanning for danger, which can override the prefrontal cortex, possibility causing cognitive problems like impaired memory, attention, and concentration.

In other words, it’s hard for the bullied brain to learn when it’s always in a state of high arousal and high alert, preparing for the next attack. These brain changes and the resultant social and emotional scarring are often explanations for the chronic symptoms bullying victims tend to have, such as anger, avoidance behaviors, anxiety, depression, appetite, and sleep problems, feelings of helplessness, and suicidal thoughts. Bullying victims seem to have a lot in common with children living in prolonged chronic-stress conditions such as poverty. The hypersensitivity makes it very hard to relax and enjoy activities.

Ways to Empower Bystanders

Bullies like an audience. If the audience shows disapproval, bullies can be discouraged from continuing. Yet, the most common reaction for bystanders is to keep silent and do nothing. While there are a variety of reasons for this inaction, most of the time students simply don’t know what to do, are afraid they may get bullied, do not want to be called a snitch, and may be fearful for their physical safety. Bystanders, especially children, need to be empowered to act, providing a critical way to prevent bullying in schools.

Sherri Gordon offers some suggestions about how parents and teachers can empower student bystanders in her article “How Empowering Bystanders Can Prevent Bullying: Ideas for Teaching Bystanders to Take Action.” These include reminding bystanders that their silence helps the bully gain more power and control over victims of bullying, and can encourage the offender to bully others. It provides students with some perspective by asking how they would want bystanders to respond if they were being bullied and others watched but said nothing. You can help students formulate ideas about how to respond to bullying situations through roleplay in the classroom, with a bully, a victim, and five to six bystanders. You should emphasize that distracting a bully and speaking out against bullying can be effective, but discourage students from intervening physically. Let them know that it is courageous to report bullying, and that it’s not considered tattling.

Properly trained and informed students who are potential bystanders can make a big difference in other students’ lives. It is important for parents, teachers, and school administrators to take action to empower potential student bystanders to stop bullying. Empowering bystanders to take action might actually be the key to stopping bullies.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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1 Comment

  1. A bully is also a victim of someone who was bullied it’s a vicious circle more likely they are a coward who cannot communicate their feelings emotionally so in turn they hide their feelings by bullying and taking out their fears and frustrations on to other people which in turn become bullies

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