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Jennifer Knack. Photo: Clarkson University
Jennifer Knack. Photo: Clarkson University

Researcher looks at bullying's long-term health effects

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The school year is in full swing now, and for some kids that unfortunately means the start to another year of being bullied.

One strategy for kids who are bullied is often to stay home from school as much as possible. But those kids may not just be faking their stomach aches--being bullied may be making them sick, and not just for the day.

Jennifer Knack, assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University, researches the health effects of bullying, by looking at how stressful experiences like being bullied affect college students' levels of cortisol--often known as the 'stress hormone'.

She told Nora Flaherty she's seeing serious health problems in students who have experienced long-term bullying:

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Nora Flaherty
Digital Editor, News

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My research is explaining the overlap between social pain experiences and physical pain. My major question is zeroing in right now on whether or not kids who are bullied or who experience peer victimization experience more health problems. And previous research has shown that that is…what happens: That people who are bullied have more stomach aches, more sore throats, more cold sores, they just feel sick more often.

We’re exploring why that happens, and looking at whether or not levels of hormones, particularly salivary cortisol,  might explain why kids who are bullied get sick more often.

What kinds of health problems are you looking at here long-term?

For adolescents we’re thinking stomach aches [are] maybe [some] of the biggest problems, sore throats, cold sores, headaches. But we’re thinking the older you get, the more experience of bullying you have, if it’s a very long-term experience over several years, in our college students we’re seeing people are reporting high blood pressure, bone and joint problems, we’re seeing them say that their doctors have told them they have more serious health problems such as problems with their heart.

So we think that over your lifespan if you continue to have experiences with bullying you’re going to…have very serious health problems.

You’ve told me  your hypothesis—what are your findings so far?

So far we are finding that peer victimization…predicts lower levels of cortisol in the morning, which in turn predicts higher levels of physical health problems. So it does seem there’s something going on in your body that is different for kids who are being bullied than those who are not, that’s leading to changes and differences in their physical health.

So how does this fit into the larger conversation about bullying?

Sure. So right now bullying is a very hot topic, we’re hearing it talked about in schools, the media is flooded with information about bullying. And I think this research just adds another layer of importance for why it’s so critical that everyone pays attention to bullying not just people who are at schools but the public in general…and raising awareness that bullying isn’t just a rite of passage for kids, it’s not something everybody’s going through, and that it does have very serious consequences for people. So I really think it just adds another layer of importance to why it’s so critical that we’re spending time and resources examining ways to reduce bullying and make our playgrounds and schools safer for our kids.

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