Saliva clue to chronic bullying

Armen Hareyan's picture

Hormones in children's saliva may be a biological indicator of the trauma kids undergo when they are chronically bullied by peers, according to researchers who say biological markers can aid in the early recognition and intervention of long-term psychological effects on youth.

"Bullying is mainly self-reported either by students or observed by teachers," said JoLynn V. Carney, associate professor of counselor education at Penn State.

Carney and Richard Hazler, professor of counselor education at Penn State, looked at the hormone cortisol in students' saliva to evaluate its validity as a reliable biomarker in assessing effects of precursors to bullying. In humans, this hormone is responsible for regulating various behavioral traits such as the fight-flight response and immune activity that are connected to sensory acuity and aspects of learning and memory.


"A lot of kids suffer in silence. When you hear of school shootings, or students who commit suicide as reaction to chronic peer abuse, those are kids who are not coping with the abuse by seeking appropriate support," said Carney. "They keep their anger and frustration within and fantasize either how they are going to escape the abuse through suicide or how they are going to get revenge on their abusers."

When a person senses a threat, the cortisol level spikes and learning and memory functions are negatively impacted, Carney said. The body basically focuses the bulk of its attention on surviving the threat. The longer such a spike continues, the more damage it can do to various aspects of a person's physical, social, and emotional health.

However, when a person undergoes a lengthy period of stress similar to the chronic bullying experience, researchers have found less than normal cortisol reactions that are related to a decreased sensitivity to stress, a sort of numbing or desensitizing effect.

This hypocortisol finding, Hazler noted, has serious physical and psychological implications for kids