New Study Tracks Bullying’s Impact into Adulthood

Anyone who still thinks bullying is simply a childhood rite of passage should take note: In one of the first long-term studies tracking the effects of bullying, Duke University researchers have found that bullied children grow into adults who are at increased risk of anxiety disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts. In addition, bullies who had not been victimized themselves were four times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder.

“We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person’s long-term functioning. The psychological damage doesn’t just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied,” explained William E. Copeland, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Duke and lead author of the study.

“Bullying is potentially a problem for bullies as well as for victims,” said senior author E. Jane Costello, associate director of research at Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “Bullying, which we tend to think of as a normal and not terribly important part of childhood, turns out to have the potential for very serious consequences for children, adolescents and adults.”

The Duke study is significant because it is based on more than 20 years of data from large group of participants who enrolled in the program as adolescents. Beginning in 1993, the scientists followed 1,420 kids from North Carolina at three different ages – 9, 11 and 13 – interviewing them each year until they turned 16.

A total of 421 participants – 26 percent of the children – reported being bullied at least once. 887 said they suffered no such abuse. Nearly two hundred acknowledged bullying others. Of this group, about half also reported being victims.

The researchers re-interviewed the children at ages 19, 21, 24, and 26, including questions about their psychological health. To get a more accurate read, the scientists factored in other variables such as family history, poverty level, abuse at home, etc.

As adults, those who said they had been bullied, plus those who were both victims and aggressors, were at higher risk for psychiatric disorders compared with those who had never been bullied. Those who were only victims had higher levels of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia. Bully/victims had a five-times greater risk of depression than unaffected children, and were 10 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and even more likely to develop panic disorders.

“By far, being a bully and a victim meant having the worst long-term outcomes,” Copeland said.

Copeland believes that what happens to children when they’re with other kids is just as important to their long-term psychological development as what happens at home and will likely stay with them.

“This psychological damage doesn’t just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied. This is something that stays with them. If we can address this now, we can prevent a whole host of problems down the road.”

NEA’s Bullying Prevention Kit – Designed by educators for educators, this kit reflects the best available research on bullying prevention

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