Bullying Can Cause Mental Health Problems Years Later
Luckily, it really does get better.
A new study has provided the strongest evidence to date that exposure to bullying is directly responsible for mental health issues years later — but also evidence that these detrimental effects decrease over time.
“Previous studies have shown that bullied children are more likely to suffer mental health issues, but give little evidence of a causal link, as pre-existing vulnerabilities can make children both more likely to be bullied and experience worse mental health outcomes,” said the study’s lead author, Jean-Baptiste Pingault, PhD, of UCL in London.
Pingault decided to study twins in order to rule out other influencing factors. His team followed 11,108 participants, some identical twins with matching genes and matching home environments, some non-identical twins with different genes but the same home environment. Both children and their parents filled out questionnaires: at age 11 and 14 they were asked about peer victimization, and at 11 and 16 they were asked about mental health difficulties.
Learn how to help a bullied child
The effect sizes were stronger before controlling for shared environmental factors and genetics, confirming that bullying itself is only partly to blame for the poor mental health outcomes experienced by bullied children.
The researchers found that, once confounding factors were removed, there remained a causal contribution of exposure to bullying to concurrent anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and impulsivity, inattention, and conduct problems. Two years later, the impact on anxiety persisted. Five years later, there was no longer an effect on any of those mental health outcomes — however, 16-year-olds who had been bullied at age 11 remained more likely to have paranoid thoughts or cognitive disorganisation (a tendency for thoughts to become derailed).
Article continues below
“While our findings show that being bullied leads to detrimental mental health outcomes, they also offer a message of hope by highlighting the potential for resilience,” Pingault said. “Bullying certainly causes suffering, but the impact on mental health decreases over time, so children are able to recover in the medium term.”
Yet, he continued, it would be better if that impact didn’t have to happen at all. Schools all over the world have rolled out anti-bullying programs in recent years with various focuses; one of the most successful, per independent studies, is a Finnish role-playing program called KiVa, which seeks to build empathy in peer bystanders and help them think about how they would intervene in an instance of bullying. KiVa is currently being piloted in schools across Europe and the US.
But other research suggests building peers’ readiness to intervene starts closer to home. Earlier this year, researchers found a link between parents’ advice to children and children’s specific behaviors when they witness bullying take place at school. For instance, parents’ advice to their children to help and comfort victims, significantly predicted children intervening. Conversely, when children’s parents told them to ignore bullying incidents, they were not only less likely to intervene on behalf of victims, but were actually more likely to join in the bullying.
“Nearly all children are involved in bullying situations as bystanders even if they are not a bully or a victim, so it is important that parents talk with their children about ways they can intervene if they witness someone being bullied,” said Stevie Grassetti, PhD, of the University of Delaware and lead author of the study. “Bystander children play a powerful role in stopping bullying.”