Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bullying Weaklings is Good for your Health

A major study of children in North Carolina has been in the news because of the findings about bullying:
The researchers asked 1,420 youngsters between the ages of 9 and 16 whether and how often they had been bullied or had bullied others. Interviewers asked participants whether they felt more teased, bullied or treated meanly by siblings, friends and peers than other children and whether they had upset or hurt other people on purpose, tried to get others in trouble or forced people to do something by threatening or hurting them.

The researchers took finger-stick blood tests at each assessment. Interviews took place once a year until the participants turned 16, and again when they were 19 and 21. The children interviewed were participants in the larger Great Smoky Mountains Study, in which some 12,000 children in North Carolina were assessed to track the development of psychiatric conditions.
The study shows that the bullied children have high levels of an inflammatory agent known as CRP in their blood, a sign of stress that has been correlated with ill health of various kinds. This may be part of the reason that children who are bullied suffer more depression and worse health in general throughout life.

Meanwhile, children who bully others have reduced levels of CRP, and seem to have better health as they age:
Despite the implied health benefits of bullying, Copeland doesn’t advocate picking on people to better your health. The advantage probably doesn’t lie in the aggression itself but rather in the heightened control, power and social status that bullies enjoy, he believes.

The benefits of bullying are dispiriting but not surprising, says biological anthropologist Thomas McDade of Northwestern University. The slower-than-normal increase of CRP in bullies supports a growing mound of research showing that those at the top have it better, he says.
Do they ever.

This sort of finding is of course interesting in its own right, but it also connects to important political issues. By politics here I mean, not electioneering, but the base views of life that underlie our political choices. If you wanted to define contemporary American liberalism, you could do a lot worse than to start from the anti-bullying movement: liberals think adults should do everything humanly possible to prevent cruelty between children and foster in every child, and therefore every adult, the sort of confidence that leads to good mental and physical health. Conservatives are much more likely to regard this crusade as either unlikely to work, because it is so strongly against our basic animal natures, or to involve an unacceptable price in terms of money (paying for an army of social workers and school psychologists), interference with the development of real excellence through competition, and stupid nonsense like self-esteem building exercises and trophies for everyone. Even if the crusade worked (says my conservative straw man) the result would likely be an epidemic of narcissism and a generation so coddled that they can't cope with the stresses of adult life.

I find myself conflicted. The rotten ways kids treat each other disgust me, and the scars left by bullying are real and deep. But on the other hand I don't see any evidence that children growing up now (e.g., my own) are psychologically healthier than my generation was. I think the alleged epidemic of narcissism among the young is a lot of hype; yes, some people adore selfies and tweet the inane details of their lives, but there have always been people like that. What I see among the young people I know is more the reverse, a terrible lack of confidence, along with a lot of depression. Does that have anything to do with how they have been raised? If so, what can we do about it? Is bullying the right place to focus our attention, or is there something else we could do that might help more?

2 comments:

David said...

The study of course sparks a chicken-and-egg question: does bullying promote lower CRP, or is it that low-CRP children tend to be bullies?

I would also point out that the conservative model of childhood is in fact NOT designed to produce self-confident children able to handle challenges and pursue real excellence. It IS designed to produce a minority of such children as an acknowledged leadership cadre, and a mass of self-hating underlings who know their place.

Kelly Carter said...

People gain confidence when they have a truthful appreciation of their abilities, when they know what their abilities are and that they can handle tough situations.

In today's society, helicopter parents are the rule. They "overhelp" so that kids do not have to struggle. In doing so, kids end up with a lack of self-confidence and motivation because they know someone will help them out of difficulties and/or adults lack confidence in the child's ability to solve problems.