Relational Victimization and Telomere Length in Adolescent Girls: A conversation with Dr. Erika Manczak


Thanks to some amazing anti-bullying campaigns in North America, most of us know that bullying can have some serious & harmful negative consequences for our mental health. But what if we told you that bullying can also affect adolescents at a cellular level?

This #MustReadMonday we’re highlighting a fantastic article by Dr. Erika Manczak: Relational Victimization and Telomere Length in Adolescent Girls

The article focuses on the ways that bullying during adolescence may be doing a lot more damage than we had originally realized. You can find the original article here:

For a deeper dive into the article, we spoke with Dr. Manczak about her findings. Here’s what she had to say!

  1. What would you say is the main takeaway from your article?

    I think the main take away from our study is that relational aggression appears to be a particularly potent form of stress to adolescent girls, such that it showed the strongest association to telomere length (a measure of biological aging), even when compared to other stressors like being physically bullied, lacking friends, or being criticized by parents. Relational aggression is a form of bullying that consists of intentional social exclusion and efforts to undermine a person’s social standing or connections. (You can think of it as a ‘Mean Girls’ phenomenon, although it’s definitely not limited to just girls.) 

  2. If relational aggression is associated with telomere length, what does that mean for adolescent girls who experience bullying?
    Although the correlational design of our study makes it impossible to say for sure that relational bullying causes faster biological aging, our findings highlight that experiencing relational forms of bullying can be even more closely linked to less optimal biological profiles than experiencing physical aggression or other social challenges. This suggests that as adults, we need to take this form of bullying very seriously when we hear about it in adolescents and not simply dismiss it as typical teenage behavior. For girls who are experiencing this form of bullying, it would be important to make sure they have psychological support, like from friends, parents, and therapists, that can potentially buffer some of the negative effects.

  3. Some people feel that social exclusion, and maybe even bullying, are natural parts of adolescence as youth figure out how to navigate more complex social hierarchies. What would you say in response to that perspective?
    Given that so much of adolescence is about forming social bonds and figuring out where you stand in relation to peers, to a certain extent, it’s normal to find yourself forming tighter groups with select friends and inevitably exclude others. At the same time, I don’t think we should accept targeted efforts to belittle and exclude others as something to be expected and tolerated.

  4. What do you want concerned parents, guardians, and teachers to know about the associations between relational aggression and biological change?
    As with so many biological processes, there are many, many factors that contribute to telomere length and the associations between relational victimization and telomere length—and between telomere length and poor health—are hardly 1:1. Therefore, even if we do find that relational victimization causes shortening of telomeres, that doesn’t mean that other efforts can’t buffer kids from negative outcomes. Making sure that these adolescents also have positive social connections, such as with parents, friends, or other family members, can important for protecting both mental health and biological change.

  5. This study is part of a larger field of research highlighting how our psychological experiences can have important and lasting impacts on our bodies, even at a cellular level.

    What do you find the most interesting and exciting pursuits in this field?
    One of the things that most excites me about this body of research is that we’re continually discovering new connections between our minds and our bodies. This work can help us why mental disorders and physical disorders often go together and, in turn, can offer us new ways to potentially intervene to prevent negative outcomes for both our mental and physical health.

  6. What are some questions in this field that you are most excited to get answers to?
    The type of work that most excites me are efforts that try to really drill down to discover what’s most important to certain pathways, for example: what dimensions of social relationships matter most for immune processes or for cellular aging? How do those associations change across development? We broadly know that worse psychological health and more stress tends to predict negative health outcomes; understanding exactly how that happens, in what contexts, and for how long are really important and exciting goals.

    In my own research, I’m particularly excited to better understand how these dynamics may contribute to depression—one of the most common forms of mental illness in teenagers. For example, how do negative peer experiences relate to molecular or protein-level changes in the immune system and how does those shifts put teens at greater or lesser risk for depressive symptoms? 

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