Mental And Physical Toll Of Bullying Persists For Decades

April 19, 2014 7:03 AM ET

Source: NPR

The longitudinal British study checked in with 8,000 families across 40 years to trace the trajectory of a bullied child. iStockphoto

The longitudinal British study checked in with 8,000 families across 40 years to trace the trajectory of a bullied child.

What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger, right? Well, not when it comes to bullying.

Some may still consider bullying a harmless part of growing up, but mounting evidence suggests that the adverse effects of being bullied aren’t something kids can just shake off. The psychological and physical tolls, like anxiety and depression, can follow a person into early adulthood.

In fact, the damage doesn’t stop there, a British study published this week in theAmerican Journal of Psychiatry suggests. It actually lasts well into the adults’ 40s and 50s.

“Midlife … is an important stage in life because that sets in place the process of aging,” says Louise Arseneault, a developmental psychologist at King’s College London and the study’s senior author. “At age 50, if you have physical [and] mental health problems, it could be downhill from here.”

And health isn’t the only thing to worry about. Chronic bullying’s effect on a person’s socioeconomic status, social life and even cognitive function can persist decades later, too, Arseneault’s research suggests.

The study began with a national survey of nearly 18,000 children in England, Scotland and Wales who were born during a single week in 1958. Their parents were interviewed twice — once when the kids turned 7, and again when they turned 11 — about how often the children were bullied. Researchers also noted the children’s IQ score at the time and checked reports from teachers for any behavioral problems indicative of anxiety or depression in the kids.

 Midlife … is an important stage in life because that sets in place the process of aging. At age 50, if you have physical health, [and] mental health problems, it could be downhill from here.

– Dr. Louise Arseneault

Then, for four decades, they checked in periodically with roughly 8,000 of those children, recording their health, socioeconomic status and social well-being at ages 23, 45 and again at 50.

More than 40 percent of the children were reported as having been occasionally or frequently bullied at age 7 and 11 — not too far from today’s estimates in the U.S., where up to 50 percent of kids say they’ve been bullied at least once within a month.

Researchers found that at age 50, those who’d been bullied – particularly those who were repeatedly bullied — reported somewhat poorer physical health than those who hadn’t been, and also had an increased incidence of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. They also had lower education attainment; memory tests indicated that they tended, as a group, to have somewhat poorer cognitive function than those who weren’t bullied.

The study accounted for other factors that might have confounded the results, Arseneault says, such as poverty during childhood, family conflict and evidence of physical and sexual abuse. Though the study couldn’t definitively say the bullying caused the long-lasting problems, Arseneault says, other studies and statistical tests suggest the association is more than coincidental.

“In terms of relationship, they seem to be less likely to live with a partner, and to have friends who they can speak to or rely on if they’re sick,” Arseneault tells Shots. “As they get older, you would think that maybe they would grow out of it — but it’s not what we’re showing.”

The study is impressive, says William Copeland, a clinical psychologist and epidemiologist at Duke University, who wasn’t involved in the British research but has done work on the long-term effects of bullying. “This is the longest follow-up study we have of victims of bullying to date,” he says.

People need to shift their thinking on bullying, Copeland says, from considering it a “harmless rite of passage” to “this kind of critical childhood experience that can really change one’s trajectory for decades and decades.”

Bullying is somewhat different today from what it was in the ’60s — cyberbullying on the Internet has extended its reach. Copeland says the concept remains the same: singling out a weaker person as the target for repeated intentional harm. It’s just that the abuse is no longer confined to schools and playgrounds, he says. It can happen in the no-longer-safe haven of a child’s home.

Victims need some place where they can get away from the abuse and feel safe, Copeland tells Shots. “As you lose that, as you’re getting teased constantly, that can lead people to have much worse outcomes, and to feel like there’s really no way they can escape.

“As we see more and more studies like this,” Copeland says, “I think people are going to be more and more comfortable thinking of bullying in the same way we think of [other sorts of] maltreatment in childhood — as something that’s just not tolerated.”


I have listened to the discussion on the ChainLink for the past week regarding:

And as near as I can tell there is near uniform agreement that “On-Street Harassment” is “bad“. In fact near the end of the portion I was reading there appears this bit of advice:

Reply by Reba 4.0 mi 11 hours ago
You know what works? Speaking out when you see this happening. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received stupid, nasty, sexist, and misogynist comments while riding my bike (especially in warmer months) with plenty of passersby and other cyclists are nearby who just watch/listen to it happen and say nothing. Public shaming is particularly effective when done by those who aren’t the victim of the harassment.

I realize this might not be applicable to the case here, I doubt there are many other people around at 7:00 am, but as summer approaches it’s a good thing to keep in mind. If you’re riding/walking/driving by someone who’s being harassed please consider speaking out. Ignoring comments is really frustrating and hard to do sometimes.

This is good stuff. But what is missing here is that there is no recognition of the fact that “On-Line Harassment” is equally “bad“. In fact I doubt whether any of the usual participants in this practice on the ChainLink or the folks who sit quietly by as observers is aware of the nature of what they do on a fairly routine basis.

Instead they have taken to trying to cast themselves as the ones being “abused“. I suppose that if a group of Urban Cyclists were to confront On-Street Harassers in their neighborhood the outcome would be similar. One of these persons would call the cops to complain that a bunch of “elites” from the Northwest side of the city showed up in their neighborhood and starting yelling at them for merely “saying hello“.

And things would escalate from there. What is true is that these bullies are never aware of their power to inflict pain and they really do not care. I suppose the thing that drives them to being bullies is the fact that somewhere beneath all that venom is something that passes a “pain” in themselves. And they lash out when someone arrives on their forum to ask whether they would agree to take a survey on helmet use.

One wonders again, why this sort of thing triggers such outrage but it does. And as I have explained to this group before they have suddenly found themselves yelling out something to a passerby who instead of fleeing their catcalls, turned around and faced them down. I have had these cyber-bullies call my home at all hours of the night and day and send abusive emails and leave revolting voice mails.

But please rest assured that their version of on-street harassment will one day have to be outgrown. It is silly and pointless and exposes the Chicago version of Urban Cycling as something less honorable than it should be. Meanwhile female riders on the ChainLink should understand that when you are a party to the viciousness on the ChainLink and then experience a similar thing on the streets that this might be Karma raising its ugly head.

And instead of complaining about the way it makes you feel to have someone do this to you think about how the visitors to the ChainLink must feel when you folks behave as badly as you do when it is totally unnecessary.