During the last 10 years or so there’s been a lot of discussion about bullying and the impact it has on children’s lives. The spotlight’s grown brighter as increasing examples of children damaged by the taunts, social media harassment and physical and emotional abuse by peers makes headlines. Children have committed suicide, turned to alcohol and drugs, cut themselves, sought revenge, developed physical and mental illnesses because they can’t deal with the stress that bullying brings.
A new study highlights the harm caused by bullying and finds that the effects can be long-term leading to problems such as illness, job difficulties and poor relationships with others.
Researchers assessed 1,420 people four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16, and then again when they were between ages 24 and 26.
They looked into the three categories of bullying: the person who is the bully, the person being bullied and a separate category – the bully-victim – one who is bullied and then turns to bullying others.
Interestingly, the bully-victim group had the greatest risk of health problems when they were adults. They were also over 6 times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke or have a psychiatric disorder than people not involved in bullying.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, noted that victims and bully-victims were more likely to be in the lower-income percentage of young adults.
The three groups showed no real difference in the likelihood of being married or having children, but did show signs of having difficulty forming relationships with other people, particularly when it came to maintaining long-term friendships or good ties with parents in adulthood.
The investigators accounted for childhood psychiatric problems and family hardships. They found that for the kids who did the bullying, there didn’t seem to be much of an impact on their adulthood.
"Bullies appear to be children with a prevailing antisocial tendency who know how to get under the skin of others, with bully-victims taking the role of their helpers," study co-leader Dieter Wolke, of the University of Warwick, said in a journal news release.
"It is important to find ways of removing the need for these children to bully others and, in doing so, protect the many children suffering at the hand of bullies -- they are the ones who are hindered later in life," he added.
"We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up," Wolke said. "We need to change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the individual and the country as a whole; the effects are long-lasting and significant."
While many schools are taking a zero tolerance approach to bullying, parents, professional counselors and dedicated peers are the keys to helping children who are being or have been bullied. Parents and peers can offer unconditional support and counselors can help children develop real life coping skills.
Kids need to feel like they can reach out for help. Too often it’s the children who internalize their feelings that develop low-self value. It’s terribly difficult for them to believe that they have the power to change how they respond to the cruelty of others.
And for those children who have been bullied and then become the ones who bully others, it’s even more important to help them re-connect with their ability to be empathetic and compassionate. The dangers of long-term misplaced anger and uncontrolled rage are all too well known.
Seldom are these kinds of studies able to establish a direct cause and effect relationship and this study only shows an association between childhood bullying and serious health and social consequences in adulthood, but it’s an important link that should be given our full attention.