National Geographic Daily News
Photo of 3 young boys laughing and pointing at another young boy.

In this 1940s photo, three schoolboys make fun of another boy's clothes.

Photograph by Popperfoto, Getty

Sarah Zielinski

for National Geographic

Published May 12, 2014

The effects of bullying in childhood can last a lifetime, both for the child who's bullied and for his or her tormenter.

But according to a Duke University study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, while young adults show long-term ill effects of having been bullied in childhood, those who did the bullying might actually be healthier than their peers in one important measure.

The report is based on findings from the longitudinal Great Smoky Mountains Study, which started in 1993 and followed 1,420 children from western North Carolina. Researchers interviewed the participants at up to nine points in time, first when they were children and adolescents (aged 9 to 16) and again when they were young adults (aged 19 to 21). The study was led by William Copeland, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Earlier reports, including some from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, showed that young adults who were bullied as children can have long-term mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, panic disorder, and depression.

But this is the first indication that being the bully might actually be protective. The reason this escaped earlier notice, according to Copeland, is that previous work lumped together two kinds of bullies: those who were also sometimes bullied themselves (whom he calls bully-victims) and those who were "pure bullies."

Bully-victims "have the worst long-term emotional problems and poor health outcomes," Copeland and his co-authors wrote. By separating them out of the analysis in this new study, they wrote, it became clear that "pure" bullies "gain benefits from bullying others without incurring costs and may be healthier than their peers, emotionally and physically."

Protective Effect of Bullying?

The current study measured blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP)—a biomarker of chronic inflammation that's been linked to cardiovascular risk and metabolic syndrome—over several points in time during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. CRP is a sign of stress on the body, Copeland said, and "a harbinger of health problems down the road."

CRP levels increased in all participants as the study subjects got older, the scientists found. But those who had been bullied had the highest level of increase, and former bullies had the lowest. Those who were bully-victims fell somewhere in between, at about the same level as participants who had not been involved in childhood bullying at all.

"There seems to be a protective effect for the bullies because of this enhanced social status, or their success that comes along with being a good bully," Copeland said. The pattern was present even after controlling for body mass index, substance use, health status, and exposure to other types of trauma.

But Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence in Baltimore, Maryland, cautioned against overinterpreting the lower CRP levels in bullies. Rather than a health benefit, the lower CRP levels might just reflect a difference in the bullies' underlying biology, not unlike biological differences that have been seen elsewhere in children and adults with patterns of aggressive behavior.

And even if the Duke findings are evidence that being a bully might be good for people, at least along this one dimension, it shouldn't be read as a license to bully, she said.

There are "well-documented studies, both short- and long-term, showing that kids who are involved in bullying do have other problematic outcomes," Bradshaw said. For instance, children who bully are more likely to be members of gangs, carry a weapon, and have truancy problems.

Copeland added that the enhanced social status of bullies that he believes might account for their lower CRP levels can and should be achieved in more morally acceptable ways. Varsity sports, anyone?

Follow Sarah Zielinski on Twitter.

25 comments
Josh Sims
Josh Sims

I was bullied in school and it did have long standing implications.  difficulty making friends or trusting people in general, even when someone genuinely complimented me I wondered if they were making fun of me, all because I had braces on my legs like forest gump.  I am over that, but still have social anxiety.  It is unbelievable what stress can do to the body, not just stress from bullying.  I read some great articles at best home health test not just on stress but pretty  interesting.  http://besthomehealthtest.com/how-healthy-are-you/effects-of-stress-on-health/   and I am learning everyday better ways to deal with the stress.  In the end while i do still have some social anxiety and prefer to be a bit of a loner, well besides my wife and kids, it did make me more able to help one of my children when she went through bullying so i am glad for that...try to find a positive :)


Sophie Cat
Sophie Cat

As long as our schools reflect the hierarchy in our society, i.e., "elite" groups of people who have more power than other groups, we will never eliminate bullying.  Bullies exist BECAUSE their parents encourage bullying; their parents are bullies themselves.


At school I was stabbed with pencils, pushed down flights of stairs, my bully screamed obscenities at me (with teachers standing nearby who did NOTHING), my bully threw food on me in the cafeteria, I was pushed to the ground, my books and papers snatched from my arms and destroyed. 


No one helped me - so I had to help myself.


At our end-of-the-school-year Senior Party, I found my bully passed-out on the couch in the den of the house of one of the "cool kids" at school. 


I went to the bathroom, and found a razor. 


I went to the study, and found a felt-tip pen - in PURPLE.


I went back to the den where my bully peacefully snored, and I shaved off the eyebrows of my bully.


Then I drew his eyebrows back on, with a felt-tip pen - in PURPLE.


For months afterward, I enjoyed the stares and laughs he endured.


But he DID leave me alone after that, and that was the whole point. 


Bullies are usually big cowards - if you defend yourself, they will usually leave you alone. 

xia yan
xia yan

in my view, this study is somewhat partial. Some people who were bullied may form a  resistance.  

Robin A. Walter
Robin A. Walter

A new bullying program is starting this year, that isn't isolated to childhood experiences, but to all types and age groups.  Bullies come in many forms, just as victims of bullies cover a broad spectrum.  The resulting measure in this study and program will be first in true social change and understanding, finding an appropriate extension of acceptability (like the changes of the PC movement of the 1980's that tool hold and are seen in global change or at lease knowledge of what PC acts are all about), ending the cycle of bullying in favor or active awareness and acceptance.  More information about this new program can be received by writing to publisher@ravenportpublishing.com

Willa Grant
Willa Grant

Freakin'  fabulous, bullying is beneficial which means it will continue. Humans suck.

Fredrick Welfare
Fredrick Welfare

Sounds like an apology for egotistical anti-social miscreants, or are we really talking about nitpicking normative zealots??

Donna Vieira
Donna Vieira

Say "NO" to abuses no matter how the abusers portray themselves to be.  Check what they say is in line with what they do. 


Always remember that you are in charge of your lives.  Confront bullies and hold them accountable for their deceptive and abusive behaviors. 

David Lakatos
David Lakatos

The Biggest Bully in America is the U.S. Government.

craig hill
craig hill

This article irresponsibly extols bullying by signifying the positive health consequences for the bully, when what should be focused upon is the early isolation and chemical treatment, if necessary, of the bully so he can be removed from any possible position in society, whether controlled by drugs or not, before he can grow up to be a political leader or a CEO of a criminally-acting corporation, both of which abound because the bully seeks and attains postions of power, which allows him to bully on a mass scale. That connectivity should be draconically cut by society starting at every identifiable bully's young age, not celebrated as the success stories of successfully undiagnosed thugs ruling over his bullied population, to the detriment of 99% of society.


Let's see another article, Nat Geo, about society's necessary search and destroy mission of young bullies' uninterrupted rise to power, which needs be arrested and controlled.   

Taximan Lindsey
Taximan Lindsey

Bully for the bullies.   American success stories rely on bullies.


The others bullied, targeted for destruction?  Not so much.

Matthew Gugai
Matthew Gugai

I was a victim of bullying but i came out of it by one serious fight. From then on I was never bullied and in return I gave others their space.


Sally Jo Davis
Sally Jo Davis

I agree with Anne Redman. My boss bullied me to the point that he gave me PTSD. He took great pleasure in his treatment towards me. I overheard him laughing with staff members when he was talking about me. I recently heard he has colon cancer. Believe me, it can't make me happier.

Anne Redman
Anne Redman

Could it be that the bullies show less stress because they are insensitive to the feelings and concerns of those around them?  I would like to see how they rate on selfishness or self-centeredness, the ability to care for or nurture others etc.  I think it would be easier to feel less stress if you don't care what happens to other people. 

Gerard Van der Leun
Gerard Van der Leun

Gee, Sarah, can you explain exactly what this chunk of junk is doing under the banner of "National Geographic?"

A. Person
A. Person

@Willa Grant  Really, how is it fabulous? And also, most humans suck, not all humans... Just people like you.

Sophie Cat
Sophie Cat

@Anne Redman There is actually evidence that psychopaths become CALMER, when inflicting pain on others. 

People who enjoy physically and emotionally harming others, actually FEEL BETTER after victimizing someone.  Psychopaths report feeling less anxious, less 'pressured'.    And during the violent episode, they report feeling calm.

As if they're actually enjoying themselves.

Liz R
Liz R

@Anne Redman  I think there is a connection with conditions that make them less able to empathise with other people. In a way, this means they will always be the losers, no matter how good they make themselves feel at the time. I suspect that the lack of stress in later life is also due to being unable to relate to other people. Personally I would rather have the extra stress and someone who loves me!

Sophie Cat
Sophie Cat

@Gerard Van der Leun At least it's not another look at "Inside Prison", that's all that NatGeo seems to be interested in these days - supporting the Prison Industry. 

Dusty Rockets
Dusty Rockets

@Gerard Van der Leun  WoW...  why don't we try to be as RUDE as possible??

person who cares
person who cares

I believe @A. Person meant it was the opposite of fabulous, and another piece of evidence showing humans suck. So well done @Willa Grant for being horrible to a stranger on the internet. You should do well.

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