No one likes bullying, but many parents hope that as children grow, the impact of being bullied or of being a bully will fade along with adolescent gawkiness and the need for braces – but will it?
Dr. William E. Copeland and colleagues studied 1420 children who had been involved in bullying as either victims or bullies during the ages of 6 to 9. By following the children and their families as they journeyed through childhood, the researchers found some surprising results when it comes to the long-term impact of bullying, both for the bullies and for the victims.
Bullying: The Study DesignThe researchers approached children and their families from eleven counties in North Carolina to participate in the research. Over a period of twenty years, researchers annually assessed the children and interviewed the parents to determine if the child had experienced bullying or been a bully; they noted psychiatric problems for both groups.
In an interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Copeland explained why this longitudinal study has such reliable data. He tells us: “In epidemiologic studies, a response rate of over 70% is typically considered good, and a rate of over 80% is outstanding. The next question is how well do you retain the subjects that participate at least once. In the Great Smoky Mountain Study, we have been able to complete over 80% of possible interviews with the subjects over the 20 years the study has been ongoing. That too is very good. We have done extensive analyses to compare those that have continued to participate with those that have not and we have not identified any ways in which those that have participated are different than those that have not.”
In this case, the high rate of response and retention increase the quality and reliability of the results.
Risk of Bullying: Social FactorsChildren who had low socio-economic status (defined as children whose family was under the poverty level), who had parents with only a high school education, or parents who worked in jobs that weren’t well-regarded (described in the study as being “low parental occupational prestige“) were more likely to be both bullies and victims. Children who were from families with “unstable family structure” (defined as a family experience of divorce, single parenthood, presence of stepparents or separated parents) were at higher risk for both bullying and being bullied as well, as were children from dysfunctional families where they experienced violence, maltreatment, or parental neglect.
The Findings and the Long-term Psychiatric ImpactOf the children studied, 26.1% of children were considered victims, and reported being bullied at least once, although 8.9% of the children reported multiple episodes of bullying. Within the study group, 5.0% of children were bullies, 4.5% of children were both bullies and victims, and the majority of children, 68.9%, were neither bullies, victims, or bully/victim.
As adults, the victims still exhibited effects of bullying. Bullies were more likely to continue anti-social activities and be diagnosed as having an ”antisocial personality disorder,” while victims of bullying were more likely to suffer from both depression and anxiety disorders as adults. Women who were bullied as children were more likely to report agoraphobia, and men who were bullying victims as kids were more likely to report “suicidality.”
Combination Bully/victims were also more likely to be depressed, but somewhat surprisingly, the adults did not report higher rates of substance abuse.
The finding that psychiatric problems from bullying persisted into adulthood as well as the lack of higher levels of substance abuse surprised the lead researcher. He states, “In some ways, I was surprised to find these long-term effects to begin with – I was a skeptic coming into this study. But I am surprised that victims are having a number of long-term emotional problems, but not necessarily substance problems. Part of the answer may be that substance problems are relatively common in early adulthood and then become less common later on.
It may be that as these problems get less common in the late 20s and early 30s we may start to see that victims are more likely to have persistent substance problems.”
Bullying Study: The ImplicationsThis study has a variety of implications. According to Dr. Copeland, “… the long-term emotional consequences of being bullied were much stronger than what we would have expected. For me, this suggests that being the target of repeated bullying is one of the more damaging experiences of childhood. Bullying is a serious problem, not only for people in childhood, but in adulthood as well.”
The social cost of bullying is high, and long lasting – both for bullies and their victims. Supporting intervention efforts is more than a feel-good activity, it could prevent the pain of psychiatric disorders and long-term sociological effects. We may think that bullying is just part of life, but children don’t outgrow the effects of being a victim or victimizing others.