Ask any kid who was bullied in school, and he or she will often tell you that the emotional scars can last forever. Whether people are bullied for their weight, their looks, or some other characteristic, the experience can become the source of lifelong insecurities. Being victimized by peers can even lead to health problems and psychological issues.
For the first time, a study has reviewed the long-lasting effects of bullying on children’s health, both physical and emotional, through a longitudinal study following participants from fifth to tenth grade. The study confirmed that the longer and more intensely a child is bullied, the more detrimental the consequences to his or her health.
Anywhere from 10 percent to more than 25 percent of middle school students report having been bullied in the previous year.
Previous studies have shown a correlation between childhood victims of bullying and the development of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, in adulthood. They have also shown that those who were bullied as children fare poorly in adulthood, and are more likely to have difficulty with work and relationships, become smokers, have health problems, and develop mental disorders. This study is the first to follow the same children over five years in school to see the accumulating impact of bullying.
Researchers from the Boston Children’s Hospital Division of General Pediatrics led a study that followed over 4,000 children in Birmingham, Alabama; Los Angeles County, California; and Houston, Texas for five years. Students were interviewed during the fifth, seventh, and tenth grades about their physical and mental health, and asked about any experiences with bullying. Students were divided into groups based on their experience with bullies: never bullied, only bullied in the past, only bullied in the present, and bullied in both the past and present.
Regardless of age, there was a direct link between bullying and a decline in mental and physical health. Being bullied also led to more symptoms of depression and a lower sense of self-worth. Additionally, those who were chronically bullied had a harder time performing physical activities, such as walking, running or playing sports. This correlates to another recent study that showed bullying that occurred during physical activity caused students to not want to participate in fitness activities even a year later.
Through analysis of the data from the students, the researchers found the group bullied both in the present and the past had the lowest score for their health (44.6 percent of children in this group were at the lowest decile for their age group for psychosocial health). The second lowest health score was from the group currently bullied (30.7 percent), followed by those only bullied in the past (12.1 percent). The best health scores were those who had never been bullied (6.5 percent).
This study shows that the negative effects of chronic bullying are cumulative, and become worse over time. Conversely, the sooner the bullying ceases, the less long-term effect it has on a child’s mental and physical health. These findings suggest that the current state of being bullied has the most immediate impact on a person’s health, but that the health consequences can compound over time. This is why the group that fared the worst was the one that was chronically bullied. The study confirms findings from other studies that the negative health problems can continue even once the bullying ends.
Early intervention to stop bullying will help to decrease the negative health impacts of bullying. Additionally, any lingering effects should be continually addressed and treated to ensure that the children will not have any negative, life-long effects from bullying. This can be done through psychotherapy and support from loved ones.
Recently, there has been a large movement to stop bullying, such as the national campaign StopBullying.gov. Continuing to provide teachers, parents and clinicians with ways to identify and stop bullying will help to stop it before it has a chance to significantly impact a child. However, parents, teachers, and clinicians also need to understand and learn the best way to address the negative effects in order to minimize the impact on the victim’s health.