The Lasting Marks of a Bully

Bullying effects last into adulthood for victims and for victims who bullied others

(RxWiki News) It may seem as though the idea of the class bully has been around as long as classrooms have, or longer. But that doesn't mean bullying should be an acceptable rite of passage.

A recent study found that children who had been bullied in school were more likely to have social, financial and health problems as adults than children who hadn't been bullied.

Bullies themselves were only more likely to have psychiatric or legal problems as adults if they also had family hardships or psychiatric conditions as children. But those who were both victims and bullies of others did the most poorly as adults.

The more people were bullied as children, the more likely they were to be poor and have health difficulties as adults.

"Report bullying when you see it."

This study, led by Dieter Wolke, PhD, of the Department of Psychology and Division of Mental Health and Wellbeing at the University of Warwick, looked at the long-term effects of bullying.

The researchers followed 1,420 children in western North Carolina from childhood into adulthood.

The children were all aged 9, 11 or 13 when the study began. The children and their parents were interviewed once a year until the children were 16, and asked questions about bullying others or being bullied within the previous three months.

The study only included reports of peer bullying that occurred at school. Bullying was defined as being "a particular object of repeated mockery, physical attacks or threats by peers or siblings."

Being a bully was defined as repeatedly engaging " deliberate actions aimed at causing distress to another or attempts to force another to do something against his or her will by using threats, violence or intimidation."

Three groups were identified. A total of 24 percent of the children had been victims only, meaning they had never bullied others.

Eight percent of the participants were bullies only and had never reported being victims. Another 6 percent of the participants were "bully-victims," which means they had been victims of bullying and had bullied others.

Bullies were a little more likely to be male, but the victims were equally male and female.

Then the participants were interviewed again when they were aged 19, 21 or 24 to 26 years old. All but 10 percent of the original group were interviewed as adults.

The researchers gathered data on the adult participants' health, risky or illegal behaviors, wealth and social relationships.

Assessments of their health included having a serious physical illness, having been in a serious accident, having a sexually transmitted disease, being obese, having a psychiatric disorder and smoking.

Risky or illegal behaviors included felony records as well as interview data about physical fighting, breaking into homes or businesses, frequent drunkenness, use of marijuana or other drugs and number of sexual hook-ups.

The researchers found that bullies were more likely, compared to victims or children not involved in bullying, to have felonies and engage in substance abuse and/or illegal behaviors.

However, this higher risk vanished for bullies after the researchers took into account family hardship and psychiatric disorders the children had.

Yet even after accounting for family hardship and child psychiatric disorders, victims and bully-victims were more likely to have poor health, to be poor, to have trouble keeping a job and to have poorer social relationships than children not involved in bullying.

"Bully-victims in school had the worst health outcomes in adulthood," the researchers wrote, "with markedly increased likelihood of having been diagnosed with a serious illness, having been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, regular smoking and slow recovery from illness."

The researchers also found that students who were bullied consistently throughout childhood, rather than a couple of times, had an even higher risk for poor outcomes as adults.

The more the children had been bullied, the worse their financial and social relationship problems tended to be.

"Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives," the researchers wrote. "Interventions in childhood are likely to reduce long-term health and social costs."

Seanna Crosbie, LCSW, director of program services at Austin Child Guidance Center, was not surprised by these findings.

"We are now learning that bullying can have a larger impact on those targeted," Crosbie said. "For example, children who are bullied are less likely to attend school regularly and can have problems with academic performance."

The effects of bullying extend to support networks as well, Crosbie said.

"Additionally, children who are bullied may have difficulty developing a social circle of friends and other supportive peers, which can be challenging during the middle and high school years," She said."This research supports that being bullied can have longer impacts, that reach into adulthood as well."

Crosbie said it is therefore essential that action to address the problem be taken.

"As we learn in the academic and mental health fields about the influences of bullying, it is important for us to address the root causes of bullying in schools and our communities," Crosbie said. "Educators, parents and children should be taught skills on how to intervene and stop bullying, and schools should adopt anti-bullying campaigns and policies."

This study was published August 19 in the journal Psychological Science. The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation and the UK Economic and Social Research Council.

The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
August 20, 2013
Last Updated:
August 29, 2013