Being bullied as a child, once regarded by adults as a banal fact of life, has been transformed into a national crisis in recent years. A much-lauded documentary profiled the dangers of being tormented, the U.S. government created an official website about bullying, and a California city just moved to fine parents of bullying children. Bullied kids are known to suffer from higher rates of suicide and emotional problems.
But what about the bullies? The disturbing truth is that they may be better off than their peers in terms of health, a new study claims, and the effects last well into adulthood.
Chronic inflammation—measured by C-reactive protein (CRP) levels in the blood—is associated with increased risk for an array of health problems, like cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. If you were a childhood bully, you might have the least of it, among any of your peers.
The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that being bullied—and bullying—can have biological health consequences, and that they can persist long into adulthood. Bullied children were found to have higher CRP than their non-bullied peers, meaning they experience chronic, systemic inflammation that continues into adulthood. But being a childhood bully was found to serve as a “protective factor” against low-grade systemic inflammation as an adult.
A variety of challenges are known to elevate inflammation levels, like low socioeconomic status, psychological stress, poor diet and lack of exercise. But little has been studied about how social adversity can trigger increased risk of systemic inflammation-related diseases.
The researchers at the University of Warwick, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University analyzed CRP data from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, which gathered information and blood samples from thousands of individuals for more than 20 years. The individuals answered questions across a broad range of topics, including their involvement with bullying as children.
The research found that victims of bullying had “much higher” levels of CRP than their peers, even as they advanced into adulthood. Children who were both bullies and victims of bullying grew up to have moderate inflammation levels, similar to those of kids who had no involvement in bullying whatsoever. Those who were “pure bullies,” however, had lower CRP levels, even compared with children not involved in bullying at all, suggesting that they “may be healthier than their peers, emotionally and physically.”
“Enhanced social status seems to have a biological advantage,” William E. Copeland, the study’s lead author, said in a press release. “However, there are ways children can experience social success aside from bullying others.”