When we think about bullying, we usually picture the act itself. Whether it’s a scene from a movie where a character is made fun of, an experience we’ve had in our own life where we were hurt, or a story we heard on the news – the focus is almost always put on the act of bullying and how to prevent it. However, the truth is that the lasting effects of bullying go far beyond the act itself and extend not just to the person being bullied, but to youth who engage in bullying as well.
How Does Bullying Effect Youth?
Let’s take this scenario: A youth has been teased and picked on from a young age due to their weight. Because of this treatment, they develop an eating disorder (ED). The youth enters a mental health program to get help for their ED for a month, and when they come back to school, they find out rumors about why they were gone have been spread among the student body. As time goes on, they find they can’t sleep and obsessively check social media to see if people are talking about them. They begin to do poorly in school and develop multiple health issues from the stress and their ED. They find friends and success later in life, but now have lifelong health problems that will never go away.
From this one scenario, we can see how the effects of bullying tend to build up like a snowball rolling down a hill. A study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2016 found that both youth who are bullied and who engage in bullying behavior are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide. Bullying can change the stress response system of the brain, resulting in sleep disruption, gastrointestinal issues, and constant headaches.
There isn’t much known about the exact ways in which these effects emerge from bullying. But it is clear from the data in the study that youth who are involved in bullying are suffering for it, not just because of the embarrassment, but because of very real physical and psychological effects.
What About Youth Who Bully?
Often, the way we address bullying in our schools and communities is to enact a zero-tolerance policy. Young people can expect to be suspended or even expelled from school if they bully others. Conversely, some systems turn a blind eye to bullying and hope that it will go away. Both of these approaches, while very different on the surface, have a similar result: the person’s behaviors are not addressed in a meaningful way.
Casting children who engage in bullying behavior as bad kids who need to be punished greatly diminishes the reality of the situation. The reality is that youth who bully are often struggling with their own mental health issues and coping in the only way they know how. The above report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine also found that bullies are likely to be depressed, engage in high-risk activities such as vandalism and theft, and be at risk for poor psychological and social outcomes.
All of this begs the question, why don’t we treat youth who engage in bullying behavior as people who deserve to be helped if they are experiencing such hardships? With this in mind, we should consider viewing youth who bully as young people who need our support, before anything else. This doesn’t mean we forget the youth who have been bullied, either – it just means we show strong commitment to actual, long-term change.
What Can We Do?
We can start by rethinking zero-tolerance policy, in favor of policies that support positive behaviors and address the root causes of bullying. By working through this lens on the issue, we can attempt to curb the hurtful behaviors being exhibited, while also helping all of the youth involved.
Furthermore, we can also take this understanding beyond schools and agencies and into our homes. We can talk about bullying and refuse to sweep it under the rug or blindly punish youth for it. By being open to hard conversations and providing emotional support, families and friends can be hugely impactful in the lives of youth.
And finally, we can talk about bullying often and openly. While this post is for National Bullying Prevention Month, bullying is an issue that is going to take a serious shift to eradicate. It can’t be something we only focus on for one month. Instead, it must be an issue we are cognizant of throughout the schoolyear and beyond.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. (2016, May 10). Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice. Retrieved from https://www.nap.edu/catalog/23482/preventing-bullying-through-science-policy-and-practice