My own lab has recently found that adolescents who report a lower incidence of being bullied also demonstrate higher activity in the frontal cortex during a task of emotion recognition, where unknown peers were the target faces. The prefrontal cortex is well known as the “executive” of the brain, responsible for reasoning, decision-making and behavioral regulation. We believe that this increased activity in the prefrontal cortex enables some teens to exert greater self-control, and helps them regulate their emotion and behavior in the presence of peers
The study by Hay and Meldrum adds an important dimension to the plight of today’s targets of bullying. The Internet enables adolescents (and others) to communicate every minute of every day, and for girls like Phoebe Prince this creates a world from which there is no rational way to escape the torment of her peers. While additional coping skills may have protected Phoebe somewhat, it is unreasonable to expect a fourteen-year-old girl to withstand literally constant bullying from a group of socially powerful peers. It is easy to blame Phoebe’s peers for her death, but this is also an incomplete explanation. As adults, it is our responsibility to provide safety and guidance to all children and adolescents regardless of whether they are bullies or victims. This means we are also responsible for “stepping up our game” to stay in better touch with how and where the young people in our lives are spending their time on-line. It may turn out to be a matter of life or death.