Bullying Affects Our Physical Health Too

Gist: Bullying isn't just a middle school thing. New research suggests it can cause serious issues long after graduation and well into adulthood.

Frankly: I was bullied a lot in elementary and middle school. To paint you a picture, I'll describe my first day at a new school in third grade. A little eight-year-old Sara gets dropped off at a new school where she doesn't know anyone. It's the first year of school uniforms, so I'm wearing a white collared polo shirt and navy blue shorts that by today's standards would be considered pant length. That summer my mother had decided I'd look cute with a pixie cut, though I did not, in fact, look cute with a pixie cut. I had huge Dwight-from-The-Office-style glasses that, because of my prescription, made one eye look much bigger than the other. Which wasn't really a problem because I had an eye patch.

That's right. I had an eyepatch. Long story short, I had an eye issue that meant one of my eyes was stronger than the other. To combat that my eye doctor had me wear a flesh colored sticker over the stronger of my eyes so that my brain was forced to use the weaker, thus strengthening it. None of that went over well at school. And I wasn't really able to escape that image until I got to high school.

I thought I was past all of this. In fact I considered myself lucky for having gone through all of that. I felt like that time in my life helped shape the person I am today, but writer Laura June's article for New York Magazine's The Cut, "Why Bullying Is a Serious Public-Health Problem," is making me rethink all of that.

In her article, Laura looks to research published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that labels childhood bullying as a "serious public health problem."

Laura writes that "the research, which was partly supported by the CDC, suggests that there are 'significant short- and long-term psychological consequences for both the targets and perpetrators of such behavior.' That's right: both those who get bullied and those who do the bullying can wind up with 'sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal concerns, and headaches.' And the full effects on mental health and well-being are not known."

It's at least a little comforting to learn that my tormentors might be in the same boat I am, but still, ugh.

According to the report, bullying is "any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated." But, Laura notes that what counts as bullying can "vary from child to child, from school to school, and from city to city." Basically, the time when I went up three bra cup-sizes in 8th grade and two girls asked me, "Where's the wonder in the wonder bra?" in front of our entire class, might be considered bullying in my city. But in another that might be seen as a legitimate question.

"The report suggests that bullying affects between 18 and 31 percent of children and young people, and cyberbullying affects from 7 to 15 percent," writes Laura. "Percentages are much higher for kids who have disabilities, are obese, or are LGBT." And while all 50 states have laws that address bullying in some way, we as a society, still have a tendency to not take bullying seriously. The bullying I went through, while terrible, was not nearly as bad as some of the bullying other kids face. At no point was I bullied to the point of contemplating suicide like the kids who inspired those laws. So, I definitely have been guilty of thinking bullying is just something that happens, or, that it is as the press release for the report puts it, "a rite of passage." I'm starting to change my mind.

Laura compares the idea that bullying can help toughen kids up to spanking. There is all this research that shows spanking a child can have negative effects, but still so many who think, "I was spanked, and I'm fine."

"But studies show that we're not fine, and a cursory glance at the world around us should speak in favor of trying to do things differently than previous generations did, even if we don't want to criticize our own particular parents," Laura writes. "We, the adults walking the planet, are not, as a whole, in the greatest emotional shape possible."

The point is that all bullying can have long-term effects. So let's stop explaining it away and shut it down.