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Bullying may have effects long into adulthood

Aug. 20, 2013
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science 
and World Science staff

Se­ri­ous ill­ness, strug­gling to hold down a reg­u­lar job, and poor so­cial rela­t­ion­ships are some of the prob­lems that peo­ple ex­posed to bul­ly­ing in child­hood face lat­er in life, a study finds.

Al­though chil­dren spend more time with their peers than their par­ents, there is rel­a­tively lit­tle pub­lished re­search on un­der­stand­ing the im­pact of these in­ter­ac­tions on their lives be­yond school, the re­search­ers said.

In the stu­dy, Di­et­er Wolke of the Uni­vers­ity of War­wick in the U.K. and Wil­liam E. Copeland of Duke Uni­vers­ity Med­i­cal Cen­ter in North Car­o­li­na led sci­en­tists in look­ing be­yond vic­tims alone and in­ves­ti­gat­ing the im­pact on all those af­fect­ed: the vic­tims, the bul­lies them­selves, and those who fall in­to both cat­e­gories, so-called “bul­ly-vic­tims.”

“We can­not con­tin­ue to dis­miss bul­ly­ing as a harm­less, al­most in­ev­i­ta­ble, part of grow­ing up,” said Wolke. “We need to change this mind­set and ac­knowl­edge this as a se­ri­ous prob­lem for both the in­di­vid­ual and the coun­try as a whole; the ef­fects are long-lasting and sig­nif­i­cant.”

The “bul­ly-vic­tims” were found to be at great­est risk for health prob­lems in adult­hood, over six times more likely to be di­ag­nosed with a se­ri­ous ill­ness, smoke reg­u­larly, or de­vel­op a psy­chi­at­ric dis­or­der com­pared to those not in­volved in bul­ly­ing. This group may turn to bul­ly­ing af­ter be­ing bul­lied them­selves as they may lack the emo­tion­al regula­t­ion or sup­port re­quired to cope with it, re­search­ers said.

“It shows how bul­ly­ing can spread when left un­treat­ed,” Wolke added. “Some in­ter­ven­tions are al­ready avail­a­ble in schools but new tools are needed to help health pro­fes­sion­als to iden­ti­fy, mon­i­tor, and deal with the ill-ef­fects of bul­ly­ing. The chal­lenge we face now is com­mit­ting the time and re­sources to these in­ter­ven­tions to try and put an end to bul­ly­ing.”

All the groups were more than twice as likely to have dif­fi­cul­ty in keep­ing a job, or com­mit­ting to sav­ing com­pared to those not in­volved in bul­ly­ing, the anal­y­sis found. As such, they dis­played a high­er propens­ity for be­ing impo­verished in young adult­hood.

How­ev­er, the study re­vealed very few ill ef­fects of be­ing the bul­ly. Af­ter ac­count­ing for the in­flu­ence of child­hood psy­chi­at­ric prob­lems and family hard­ship­s—which were prev­a­lent among bul­lies—the act of bul­ly­ing it­self did­n’t seem to have a neg­a­tive im­pact in adult­hood.

“Bul­lies ap­pear to be chil­dren with a pre­vail­ing an­ti­so­cial ten­den­cy who know how to get un­der the skin of oth­ers, with bul­ly-vic­tims tak­ing the role of their helpers,” ex­plained Wolke. “It is im­por­tant to finds ways of re­mov­ing the need for these chil­dren to bully oth­ers and, in do­ing so, pro­tect the many chil­dren suf­fer­ing at the hand of bul­lies—they are the ones who are hin­dered lat­er in life.”

Al­though they showed no real dif­fer­ence in the like­li­hood of be­ing mar­ried or hav­ing chil­dren, all groups showed signs of dif­fi­cul­ty form­ing rela­t­ion­ships, par­tic­u­larly when it came to main­tain­ing long-term friend­ships or good ties with par­ents in adult­hood, the study found.

The re­search, published in the journal Psychol­ogical Sci­ence, as­sessed 1,420 par­ti­ci­pants four to six times be­tween ages 9 16. It also eval­uated adult out­comes be­tween 24 and 26 years of age.


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Serious illness, struggling to hold down a regular job, and poor social relationships are some of the problems that people exposed to bullying in childhood face later in life, a study finds. Although children spend more time with their peers than their parents, there is relatively little published research on understanding the impact of these interactions on their lives beyond school, the researchers said. In the study, Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the U.K. and William E. Copeland of Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina led scientists in looking beyond victims alone and investigating the impact on all those affected: the victims, the bullies themselves, and those who fall into both categories, so-called “bully-victims.” “We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up,” said Wolke. “We need to change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the individual and the country as a whole; the effects are long-lasting and significant.” The “bully-victims” were found to be at greatest risk for health problems in adulthood, over six times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly, or develop a psychiatric disorder compared to those not involved in bullying. This group may turn to bullying after being bullied themselves as they may lack the emotional regulation or support required to cope with it, researchers said. “It shows how bullying can spread when left untreated,” Wolke added. “Some interventions are already available in schools but new tools are needed to help health professionals to identify, monitor, and deal with the ill-effects of bullying. The challenge we face now is committing the time and resources to these interventions to try and put an end to bullying.” All the groups were more than twice as likely to have difficulty in keeping a job, or committing to saving compared to those not involved in bullying, the analysis found. As such, they displayed a higher propensity for being impoverished in young adulthood. However, the study revealed very few ill effects of being the bully. After accounting for the influence of childhood psychiatric problems and family hardships — which were prevalent among bullies — the act of bullying itself didn’t seem to have a negative impact in adulthood. “Bullies appear to be children with a prevailing antisocial tendency who know how to get under the skin of others, with bully-victims taking the role of their helpers,” explained Wolke. “It is important to finds ways of removing the need for these children to bully others and, in doing so, protect the many children suffering at the hand of bullies — they are the ones who are hindered later in life.” Although they showed no real difference in the likelihood of being married or having children, all groups showed signs of having difficulty forming social relationships, particularly when it came to maintaining long-term friendships or good ties with parents in adulthood. The research assessed 1,420 participants four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16 years and adult outcomes between 24-26 years of age.