The long-term mental health consequences of bullying are more severe than those of child abuse, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Warwick in the U.K. The findings, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, were presented today at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in San Diego, CA.
Past research has established clear associations between childhood maltreatment, bullying and long-term mental health problems. In this latest study, the U.K. researchers wanted to find out whether the long-term adverse effects of bullying were due to joint exposure to bullying and maltreatment or whether bullying has its own unique consequences.
Led by Dr. Dieter Wolke, the researchers analyzed data taken from the US-based Great Smoky Mountain Study and the UK-based Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC study).
The team examined data from 4,026 participants of the ALSPAC study, looking for reports of maltreatment between the ages of 8 weeks and 8.6 years, bullying at ages 8, 10 and 13, and mental health outcomes at the age of 18. For the 1,273 participants of the Great Smoky Mountain Study, the researchers assessed reports of maltreatment and bullying from 9-16 years and mental health outcomes from 19-25 years of age.
Maltreatment was defined as physical, emotional or sexual abuse or severe maladaptive parenting. Specific adverse mental health outcomes assessed in the study included anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies.
In the ALSPAC study, 29.7 percent of the children reported only experiencing bullying, 8.5 percent reported maltreatment only and 7 percent reported experiencing both bullying and maltreatment. In the Great Smoky Mountain Study, 16.3 percent of the children reported only experiencing bullying, 15 percent reported maltreatment only and 9.8 percent reported experiencing both bullying and maltreatment.
While both bullying and maltreatment were associated with poorer mental health outcomes, children who experienced bullying had a higher risk for all three adverse mental health outcomes (depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies) than children who experienced maltreatment.
“Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated,” said Dr. Wolke. “Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression in both groups.”
The findings highlight the serious nature of bullying, said Dr. Wolke, adding: “Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up; it has serious long-term consequences.”
Further studies demonstrate the extent of the consequences of bullying
This study was not the only bullying-related research presented at the PAS annual meeting. In a series of studies led by Dr. Andrew Adesman of Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY, researchers found that high school students who are bullied are more likely to report serious depression, consider suicide and carry weapons to school.
“Teens can be the victim of face-to-face bullying in school, electronic bullying outside of the classroom and dating violence,” said Dr. Adesman. “Each of these experiences are associated with a range of serious adverse consequences.”
All three studies in this series utilized data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a questionnaire of teenagers in grades 9-12 issued every 2 years in all 50 states.
“The CDC reports that 11 percent of high school students experience dating violence, and 20 percent report being bullied,” said co-lead investigator Dr. Alexis Tchaconas. “Greater prevention efforts are needed to protect the mental health and physical well-being of our teens.”
Current estimates indicate that bullying affects nearly one in three American schoolchildren in grades six through ten, and more than 60 percent of teenagers say they witness bullying in school on a daily basis. Some children may be more likely than others to become victims of bullying: for example, nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT youth reported being verbally harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. Children who are overweight are also at higher risk of becoming the target of bullying.
Besides the detrimental health effects, bullying can also greatly impact children’s current and future educational achievement. It is estimated that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students, and one of every 10 students who drop out of school do so because of repeated bullying.