Could bullying be good for you? Some researchers have found being a childhood bully seems to correlate with at least one isolated positive health indicator. And, conversely, being the target of that bullying might have negative health effects. Shhh ... Don't share this study with the bullies in your school. We wouldn't want name-calling to be a part of a student's health regimen along with protein shakes and Rocky-style runs up and down flights of stairs.
Researchers at Duke University School of Medicine analyzed levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of low-grade inflammation, in randomly selected participants of the Great Smoky Mountains Study, which has gathered information from 1,420 North Carolina residents for two decades. Heightened C-reactive protein levels could be an indicator of health problems including metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and infections.
Studied subjects were between ages 9 and 16 at the time of the research. In interviews, they were identified as bullies, bullying victims, a combination of the two, or neither. Here's the big finding from the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week:
"Although CRP levels rose for all groups as they entered adulthood, victims of childhood bullying had much higher CRP levels as adults than the other groups. In fact, the CRP levels increased with the number of times the individuals were bullied.
"Young adults who had been both bullies and victims as children had CRP levels similar to those not involved in bullying, while bullies had the lowest CRP—even lower than those uninvolved in bullying. Thus, being a bully and enhancing one's social status through this interaction may protect against increases in the inflammatory marker."
The bad news: Along with the more well-understood psychological effects of being bullied, such as depression and higher risk of substance abuse later in life, researchers are increasingly realizing that bullying victims may have poorer physical health as well. According to a news release about the study:
"While bullying is more common and perceived as less harmful than childhood abuse or maltreatment, the findings suggest that bullying can disrupt levels of inflammation into adulthood, similar to what is seen in other forms of childhood trauma."
The good news: There are other, more positive social states that correlate with low levels of inflammatory markers, researchers wrote. That feeling of power and heightened social status associated with bullying might also be achieved through self-confidence and a positive attitude. Think about the students who climb the social ladder at school: Sure, some of them are bullies, but many of them are emotionally intelligent kids with great attitudes.
Researchers also found that subjects who ping ponged between considering themselves bullies and victims had negative health effects, which suggests repeated interruptions in one's perceived social status could have negative health effects. It seems those effects could be counteracted with less concern for social status, or through everyone's favorite social-emotional buzzword—grit.