How deep is the impact of bullying?

July 5, 2018

For about 25% of all U.S. children and teenagers, bullying is an everyday experience, at school and on their home turf. Whether that involves name-calling, isolation from social groups or activities, or actual physical aggression, it will leave a lasting impression on a child’s self-image and mental health.

Indeed, a U.K.-based study published in the November 2017 edition of the journal, JAMA Psychiatry, provides the strongest evidence to date that being bullied at a young age leads to feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as an increase in paranoid and disorganized thinking.

But, the researchers believe, the after-effects do not have to last a lifetime: Many of the negative reactions seem to dissipate within a few years.

After polling more than 11,000 twins, ages 11 through 16, in England and Wales, the co-authors—who are affiliated with King’s College London, University College London, and University of Birbeck-London—were able to isolate the extent to which bullying created negative outcomes, rather than such other factors such as genetics or environmental pollutants.

The study found that kids who are bullied as tweens or teens are more likely than their non-bullied siblings to suffer from a wide range of troubling psychiatric problems as long as two years later. However, at the five-year mark, the anxiety and depression attributable to bullying had disappeared, and the lingering impact on paranoid and disorganized thoughts was modest. Many of the children had developed strategies for managing their symptoms and fears.

The authors said, “Our finding that [the level of anxiety and depression] dissipated or reduced over time highlights the potential for resilience in children exposed to bullying. This finding also highlights the need for further investigations into mechanisms of resilience that could be harnessed in future interventions.”

Their advice: Talk to children about bullying experiences early on and encourage them to join a support group, or to find other ways to relieve their stress. “We want to be sure to support kids and consider the risk of bullying along with factors that can compound it—including pre-existing mental health conditions and isolation from peer groups.”

Research contact: j.pingault@ucl.ac.uk

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