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After the Bullying

After the Bullying

Terrie Moffitt studies long-term biological effects of harassment of children

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Gist from the Mill, the news magazine from the Social Science Research Institute.

Children who are victims of bullies are prone to anxiety and depression.

Durham, NC - For one 12-year-old girl, the taunting and teasing were almost unbearable. The false rumors that she was already sexually active with several male classmates were humiliating. She was overwhelmed by the daily harassment, and finally, her teachers intervened. Their investigation pinpointed a female schoolmate as the source. The reason: both girls were interested in the same boy.

According to 2010 U.S. Department of Justice data, bullying is not uncommon: as much as 20 percent of children ages 2 to 17 were victims of bullying at least once within the previous 12 months. Nearly 10 percent of children were assaulted chronically. A Duke study seeks to answer why certain children are targeted and to identify the long-term effects of victimization.

"A lot of people say when a child is bullied, they become aggressive, hyperactive, or exhibit acting out behavior in some fashion, but we've found that those things aren't something that can be chalked up to bullying," said Terrie Moffitt, a Duke psychology and neuroscience professor. "What really happens with children who are victims of bullies is that they become anxious and depressed."

In a seven-year longitudinal study, Moffitt and her colleagues followed 2,200 identical and fraternal twins in the United Kingdom (U.K.) from ages 5 to 12. The research revealed that physical characteristics -- weight, hair color, etc. -- don't necessarily play into how a bully targets victims. Instead, bullies often choose children who seemingly have few close, warm relationships with adults and are less likely to report the abuse.

Through home visits and questionnaires, team also determined while emotional and mental health difficulties can factor into a child being targeted by a bully, being bullied itself can spark a new set of problems.

A recent study conducted by Arizona State University published in February's Child Development, however, contradicts this assessment. The paper reported depressed children attracted bullies, but further victimization didn't worsen their depression. Moffitt's data demonstrated the opposite. Among twins where one was bullied and the other not, the bullied sibling was more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Following twins gave her team the advantage, Moffitt said, because they could control for genetic -- as well as environmental -- factors, and the Arizona team couldn't.

The Duke team is also interested in how repeated victimization affects individuals into adulthood. Beginning in May, they have a 3 million British pound grant to follow this same cohort through to age 18, looking not only at their mental health, but also their psychosocial adjustment skills and any stress-related biomarkers.

To date, existing research examining the incidence of bullying among twins has included mainly middle-class families recruited through newspaper advertising. Instead, Moffitt's team used the U.K.'s twin registry to identify a sample group that more accurately reflects the characteristics of children who are most frequently victimized.

"We under-sampled twins born to older mothers who were well educated, well- to-do, and who used fertility treatments, and we over-sampled twins born to unwed teenage mothers living in public housing. We wanted to make sure we monitored plenty of kids growing up in poverty and with adverse circumstances," Moffitt said. "We exceeded beyond our wildest dreams. Many of the kids are in dire conditions. Some moms are opium addicts, and many kids have already been removed from their moms and are in foster care. A number of mothers have already committed suicide, and in many situations the fathers are either absent or in and out of jail."

To assess how children in the study responded to bullying over time, nurses conducted two-hour, in home visits when the children were ages 5, 7, 10, and 12. They also collected birth weight, breastfeeding history, and vaccine records through a questionnaire at age 2.

The nurses observed mother-and-child interactions during each visit and used two puppy puppets -- Iggy and Ziggy -- to ask the child questions designed to discover whether the child has been victimized. For example, one puppet asked, "Sometimes bigger boys make me cry. Do bigger boys sometimes make you cry?" Children either answered verbally or touched the puppet with which they identified. Other games pinpointed whether the child could view situations from another's point of view.

In addition, 100 families participated in a laboratory study that measured the twins' levels of the stress hormone cortisol during an oral math quiz and discussion of their most recent traumatic event. Results revealed that children who hadn't been bullied experienced an initial cortisol spike, but levels normalized within 45 minutes. However, bullied children didn't have as high a cortisol rise, but the stress hormone lingered in their bloodstream beyond 45 minutes.

Terrie Moffitt and her husband and colleague Avi Caspi discuss how their longitudal research of chilldren is breaking new ground in adolescent psychology. 

"This result shows bullied children are primed for bad things to happen to them. They just don't bounce back," Moffitt said. "That's the kind of biological change to the stress hormone system than could have a long-lasting effect."

The child's emotional state wasn't the nurse's only focus, though. They also monitored and took notes on how the mother talked about her child. They focused on the mother's tone of voice rather than what she said -- for example, did she call the child "a pain" in a warm voice or with disdain? This collected data was coded and helped the team identify children who were less likely to have supportive, close relationships with their mother, putting them at greater risk for victimization.

In the long run, Moffitt said she hopes this research will be used to increase awareness among adults about bullying, as well as increase the availability of emotional and social support services for bullied children and their families. 

"We certainly don't want to overblow this since bullying is a normal part of life. We do want our kids to be resilient and learn to deal with conflict," said Moffitt, pointing out that being an occasional bullying victim is great practice for coping with adulthood. "But when bullying is chronic and secret from adults and the child feels hopeless and alone, that's the part that parents and schools need to try and catch."

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