Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bullying, Part 1 - The Basics

This is the first of two posts I want to put up on bullying -this first one contains two articles that discuss some of the serious issues that bullying presents, especially neurological changes in the victims.

The second post will look specifically at bullying of GLBT youth the negative issues surround that.

As both a victim of bullying/taunting and, like many kids who are bullied, someone who passed the torment on to others, I am very concerned about what my experience did to my brain, and who my cruelty (for which I can only beg forgiveness) did to others. If I could take it all back, I'd do it in a second.

Anyway . . .

In this NPR discussion, Tony Cox speaks with several people, one of whom is a Boston Globe reporter, which is the where the second article comes from - a long piece on the neuroscience of bullying (which elaborates on what is discussed here, even though it preceded this discussion).


Alan Eisenberg, founder, Bullying Stories
Jenna Russell, reporter, Boston Globe
Dr. Jorge Srabstein, medical director, Clinic for Health Problems Related to Bullying, Children's National Medical Center

December 2, 2010

Researchers are just beginning to understand how the effects of the abuse lingers in victims into young adulthood, middle age and even retirement. In many cases, memories of bullying hinder victims in nearly every aspect of their lives, from career choices to social interactions.

TONY COX, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Childhood bullying is an age-old problem, but researchers are just beginning to understand how the effects of abuse stay with victims into young adulthood, middle age, and even retirement.

In a recent Boston Globe series, more than 100 accounts of victims of bullying were shared, painful memories of playground fights, taunting and name-calling and much more. They also shared a common regret: not fighting back. And years later, many have still not overcome the emotional toll.

In a moment, we will hear from one of the victims from that newspaper series, and later in the program today, Jimi Izrael joins us to talk about Cleveland awaiting LeBron James' first trip back home since he bolted for South Beach last July.

First, though, we want to hear from you. If you or your loved ones have been bullied, how has the taunting affected you over the years? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now, Alan Eisenberg. He was interviewed for the Boston Globe series on bullying. Alan, welcome to the program.

Mr. ALAN EISENBERG (Founder, Bullying Stories): Thank you, Tony.

COX: Tell us your story. Your family moved from Lexington when you were seven, and the school playground, apparently, was a pretty tough place for you.

Mr. EISENBERG: Yeah, we basically, when I was seven, we moved into Lexington from what was Bowie, Maryland. So we moved north. And, you know, in my early days, probably I was a pretty popular young kid at five and thought I could carry that out to the playground when I got to Lexington.

And I found out fairly quickly in the early days, around second and third grade, that that was not going to be the case. And not only was it not going to be the case but that I would be relentlessly bullied for the six years that I was in Lexington.

COX: How old are you now, Alan?

Mr. EISENBERG: I'm 42.

COX: And how painful are the memories of that for you today, if they are still?

Mr. EISENBERG: Well, what I found was that, as I got older, and we had moved away, things had happened that, during those six years of relentless bullying, that, you know, formed who I feel like I ended up becoming and some of my personality traits and some of the, I think, the problems I had in terms of, you know, coping mechanisms as I got older.

And I think I realized somewhere in my early 20s that there were things that I was feeling and having issues with that felt that were I could trace back to the same sort of feelings and issues I felt I was having while being relentlessly bullied and during those years.

And I do feel those years form who you are. Those are very important years of childhood. And so, you know, ultimately what I found is, as I did research and dedicated more time to it, that I believe that's true.

COX: And now you run a website?

Mr. EISENBERG: Yes, I run a website for the last three years. I've maintained a website that started as sort of a cathartic way for me to tell my stories.

You know, one of the things I feel is that adults are afraid to share what happened to them. It sort of comes across as a weakness. And, you know, one of the things I wanted to do, not only to release my stories from myself, but also let other adults and even children know that they're not alone in what happened to them and that, you know, ultimately try to discuss the fact that there are long-term effects from the bullying.

COX: Alan Eisenberg was interviewed for the Boston Globe series on effects of bullying over time. He also runs, as he just said, Bullying Stories, a site for people to tell their stories of being bullied.

There is a link to the site on our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us by phone from his home in Fairfax, Virginia. Alan, thank you for dropping by.

Mr. EISENBERG: Thank you very much.

COX: Jenna Russell is the reporter who put together that series on bullying and its effects for the Boston Globe. She joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Jenna, welcome.

Ms. JENNA RUSSELL (Reporter, Boston Globe): Thank you, Tony.

COX: As we said in the introduction, you and your colleagues reviewed more than 100 adults who were childhood bully victims. Is Alan's story common among them?

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes, absolutely. In fact, the reason we did this story was really because of a revelation that we had after we published the first story in our series on bullying about the experience of a 14-year-old girl.

And after that story, we were flooded with emails, from adults, from people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, even in their 60s, who were still suffering in a variety of ways. And, quite frankly, I was stunned by this. It had never occurred to me that the consequences could be so long-lasting.

And they were suffering from depression, anxiety, anger and even effects on major life decisions. They described things like whether they went to college, what kind of career they pursued in adulthood were, they said, influenced by what had happened to them when they were very young.

COX: In your research, was there anything, a string, a connection that tied all of these people together, beyond the fact that they were all bullied, in terms of either their personalities or their circumstances? Or did you find that people who were victims of bullying came from all spectrums of the community?

Ms. RUSSELL: I think that was a very interesting part of this for me, was to see that these people were bullied for many, many different reasons. Some of them were very big for their age. Some of them were very small. Some of them were quiet and shy and introverted, and others were quite outgoing.

But for different reasons, they became targets in a way that was not passing but that lasted for a long time.

COX: We're going to take some calls, and we're going to begin with Julianna(ph). She's calling us from Atlantic City, New Jersey. Julianna, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JULIANNA (Caller): Hi, I love your show.

COX: Thank you.

JULIANNA: I was I'm from northeast Philadelphia, and I'm a redhead, and I was bullied every single day throughout middle school and high school. And actually recently, one of the worst bullies, a male, he contacted me on Facebook and sent me a whole thread of, I'd say, like eight emails bullying me, telling me I looked really great, thank you for all the plastic surgery, which I never had, and continued the bullying.

COX: Are you saying wait a minute, did somebody continue the bullying after all these years, via Facebook with you?

JULIANNA: I'm 26, and this happened three weeks ago.

COX: What did you do?

JULIANNA: I well, I'm a freelance journalist. So I was about to I'm just about to write an article about it to follow up. But I didn't I couldn't respond. I just shut down. You know, it ruined, like, three days of my life. I just shut down.

COX: Julianna, thank you very much for sharing that. Let me come and ask you, Jenna. You wrote a lot about people who were bullied as children and the effects and the trauma of that, revisiting them as they got older. But I don't recall reading anyone coming back and being attacked again by the same tormentor that they had as children.

Ms. RUSSELL: That is really a very unfortunate story. And no, like, I've not heard that. I've heard people tell me that even as adults in their hometowns, if they were walking down the street decades later and saw the person who bullied them that they would still feel very much afraid and almost panic-stricken as they would have as a child.

And I've also heard much happier stories of bullies who have contacted victims in adulthood to apologize. I think actually, your previous guest Alan Eisenberg had an experience like that. But this is something that is speaks to the very problematic nature of the new technology, which can allow these kinds of contacts to go on.

Read the whole discussion (30 mins, total).

And now the Boston Globe story - part of a series - that specifically looks at the neuroscience of bullying and taunting and the way it shapes the brain.

Inside the bullied brain

The alarming neuroscience of taunting

In the wake of several tragedies that have made bullying a high-profile issue, it’s becoming clear that harassment by one’s peers is something more than just a rite of passage. Bullied kids are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and suicidal. They struggle in school — when they decide to show up at all. They are more likely to carry weapons, get in fights, and use drugs.

But when it comes to the actual harm bullying does, the picture grows murkier. The psychological torment that victims feel is real. But perhaps because many of us have experienced this sort of schoolyard cruelty and lived to tell the tale, peer harassment is still commonly written off as a “soft” form of abuse — one that leaves no obvious injuries and that most victims simply get over. It’s easy to imagine that, painful as bullying can be, all it hurts is our feelings.

A new wave of research into bullying’s effects, however, is now suggesting something more than that — that in fact, bullying can leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it is still growing and developing. Being ostracized by one’s peers, it seems, can throw adolescent hormones even further out of whack, lead to reduced connectivity in the brain, and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.

These neurological scars, it turns out, closely resemble those borne by children who are physically and sexually abused in early childhood. Neuroscientists now know that the human brain continues to grow and change long after the first few years of life. By revealing the internal physiological damage that bullying can do, researchers are recasting it not as merely an unfortunate rite of passage but as a serious form of childhood trauma.

This change in perspective could have all sorts of ripple effects for parents, kids, and schools; it offers a new way to think about the pain suffered by ostracized kids, and could spur new antibullying policies. It offers the prospect that peer harassment, much like abuse and other traumatic experiences, may increasingly be seen as a medical problem — one that can be measured with brain scans, and which may yield to new kinds of clinical treatment.

During the first half of the 20th century, even severe child abuse was considered a largely psychological problem in its long-term effects, denting children emotionally in a way that made it hard for them to grow into happy adults.

Gradually, however, scientists began to look at the brains of adults who had been abused as children and realize that the damage wasn’t just emotional: Their brains had undergone telltale long-term changes. Over the past two decades, neuroscientists have marshaled plenty of evidence that serious physical and sexual abuse during early childhood can short-circuit normal brain development.

But what about cruelty that is emotional rather than physical? That that comes from peers instead of parents? And happens at school instead of at home, when children’s brains are no longer so young and malleable? In other words, what about bullying?

Martin Teicher, a neuroscientist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, has been examining just these kinds of scenarios. He began by studying the effects of being verbally abused by a parent. In his study of more than 1,000 young adults, Teicher found that verbal abuse could be as damaging to psychological functioning as the physical kind — that words were as hurtful as the famous sticks and stones. The finding sparked a new idea: “We decided to look at peer victimization,” he said.

So Teicher and his colleagues went back to their young adult subjects, focusing on those they had assumed were healthy in this respect — who’d had no history of abuse from their parents. The subjects, however, varied in how much verbal harassment — such as teasing, ridicule, criticism, screaming, and swearing — they had received from their peers.

What the scientists found was that kids who had been bullied reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders than the kids who hadn’t. In fact, emotional abuse from peers turned out to be as damaging to mental health as emotional abuse from parents. “It’s a substantial early stressor,” Teicher said. The data were published in July in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Things got even more interesting when Teicher decided to scan the brains of 63 of his young adult subjects. Those who reported having been mistreated by their peers had observable abnormalities in a part of the brain known as the corpus callosum — a thick bundle of fibers that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and which is vital in visual processing, memory, and more. The neurons in their corpus callosums had less myelin, a coating that speeds communication between the cells — vital in an organ like the brain where milliseconds matter.

It’s not yet entirely clear what these changes in the corpus callosum may lead to, or whether they’re connected to the higher rates of depression that Teicher found in bullied kids. “There may be some subtle neurocognitive difficulties,” he said. “We’re currently doing research that will allow us to answer this question better.”

Teicher’s study is just one of a number of recent studies that have been finding troubling physical effects of even verbal bullying. For the past several years, Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychologist at the University of Ottawa, has been following a group of 12-year-olds, including some who had a history of being victimized by their peers, and assessing their functioning every six months. Among other things, she has discovered that being tormented by other kids can recalibrate children’s levels of cortisol, a hormone pumped out by the body during times of stress.

In a 2008 paper published in the journal Aggressive Behavior, Vaillancourt demonstrated that boys who are occasionally bullied have higher levels of cortisol than their peers. Bullied girls, meanwhile, seem to have abnormally low levels of the hormone. (It’s not entirely clear why that’s the case, but low cortisol levels are sometimes a sign of a body that has been so chronically stressed that it has learned to make less of the hormone.)

Vaillancourt speculates that cortisol may, in fact, underlie many of the adverse effects of bullying: It can weaken the functioning of the immune system, and at high levels can damage and even kill neurons in the hippocampus, potentially leading to memory problems that could make academics more difficult. Indeed, Vaillancourt has already found that teens who are bullied perform worse on tests of verbal memory than their peers. One of her next studies involves trying to get at this question directly: She will be putting some of her subjects — now ages 16 and 17 — into an MRI machine to look for evidence of damage to the hippocampus.

Research on animals suggests that Vaillancourt might be onto something. To model the kind of psychosocial stress that accompanies bullying, Daniel A. Peterson, a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School, did a series of experiments in which he put a young, subordinate rat in a cage belonging to a much larger, older, more aggressive rat. The dominant rat — the king of this particular playground — promptly began to push the smaller one around. “We let it go to the point where there’s substantial physical contact, maybe a bite or two,” Peterson said. Then, the researchers would rescue the younger rat, removing him from the cage before he could be seriously injured.

As Peterson documented in a 2007 paper in the Journal of Neuroscience, just a single session of this kind of bullying was enough to leave a mark on the smaller rat’s brain. In particular, Peterson and his colleagues examined the rate of neurogenesis, or the birth of new brain cells, in that same all-important memory-maker: the hippocampus. The bullied rats still made new neurons at a normal rate, but there was a significant hiccup in the process — an unusually high percentage of the cells would die off before becoming fully mature.

It’s not yet clear how long these changes last. Peterson suspects that neuron survival returns to normal if the bullying is a single, isolated incident, as it was with his rats. But, he says, “I think if you had a more persistent stressor of this level, it could reset the thermostat so you’d have a lower level of neurogenesis going on.”

Research into the neurological effects of bullying is still preliminary, and animal models are not perfect replicas of human social behavior. But together, these early findings suggest that bullying, even the verbal kind, is more similar to physical and sexual abuse than we might like to admit. No longer can we draw a clear line between the two kinds of mistreatment — they can both produce the same kind of trauma.

There is still much that neuroscientists need to sort out, however. It remains difficult to thoroughly disentangle cause and effect: It’s possible, for instance, that kids with certain hormonal levels or brain characteristics are more likely, for whatever reason, to be bullied in the first place. And, encouragingly, changes in the brain don’t always translate into long-term damage: Indeed, some of the subjects who had what researchers suspect are bullying-related brain changes are now happy, healthy adults.

But the findings are certainly provocative, and they raise some serious questions about how we should think about bullying. Does being victimized have subtle effects on cognitive functioning that we haven’t even noticed yet? Might some kids be more likely to develop the neurological hallmarks of bullying? Now that we know that victims are undergoing profound physiological changes, are there medical interventions that would be as helpful, or more so, than counseling and therapy? Would demonstrating that bullying scars the brain make it easier to prosecute bullies in court?

Vaillancourt, for her part, sees another kind of value to the new neurobiological research: as a tool to change how bullying is seen by the public, as well as by educators who may be in a position to intervene. In the past, Vaillancourt has been frustrated that her studies on the emotional and psychological effects of bullying have not generated much attention. “When I show that something is biological, it makes headlines,” she said. “For some reason I think humans are more compelled to believe biological evidence than someone saying, ‘Oh I’m depressed. I don’t feel good about this.’ I’m hoping that that is a policy changer.”

Emily Anthes is a freelance science writer.

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