It may have been funny to watch Regina George dominate the rest of the student body in the movie Mean Girls, but in real life, bullies can inflict serious psychological damage on their victims. Every day millions of kids hear they’re too fat, too skinny, too smart, or too stupid, too whatever for somebody else's liking.
New research suggests the effects of this bullying don’t just disappear after we go home and cry — the consequences can last well into adulthood. Victims of bullying are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues, even as grown-ups.
What’s the Deal?
The study is the first piece of long-term research on the psychological effects of bullying. Researchers followed 1,420 participants from Western North Carolina and divided them into four groups based on questionnaires: bullies, victims, bullies who were also victims, and those who were not exposed to any kind of bullying. When the participants were between the ages of 9 and 16, researchers asked them questions about their experiences with bullying. Then researchers checked in with the participants again when they were 19, 21, and between 24 and 26.
Results showed that those who were bullied as kids were more than four times more likely to have an anxiety disorder (such as generalized anxiety disorder) when they grew up, compared to those with no experience related to bullying. Even bullies themselves faced greater risk for antisocial personality disorder in adulthood. But those who were bullies and victims had it the worst. Compared to kids who weren’t exposed to bullying, those who were bullied and bullied others in turn were much more likely to develop depression, panic disorder, suicidal thoughts, and agoraphobia (fear of being in social situations).
Even when the researchers controlled for factors like psychiatric disorders and family drama, they still found that kids exposed to bullying were more likely to develop these mental health problems.
Is It Legit?
Definitely. This study contributes to a body of research that suggests childhood bullying has some serious psychological consequences, both immediately and later on in adulthood. Those consequences include a higher chance of developing depression and anxiety, relationship problems, and even suicidal thoughts as adults Is a history of school bullying victimization associated with adult suicidal ideation?: a South Australian population-based observational study. Roeger, L., Allison, S., Korossy-Horwood, R., et al. Discipline of General Practice, Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 2010 Oct;198(10):728-33. Family of origin environment and adolescent bullying predict young adult loneliness. Segrin, C., Nevarez, N., Arroyo, A., et al. Department of Communication, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. The Journal of Psychology 2012 Jan-Apr;146(1-2):119-34.. Other studies suggest boys who are bullies and victims are especially likely to suffer from mental health issues when they reach adulthood Childhood bullying as a risk for later depression and suicidal ideation among Finnish males. Klomek, A.B., Sourander, A., Kumpulainen, K., et al. Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, NY. Journal of Affective Disorders 2008 Jul;109(1-2):47-55. What is the early adult outcome of boys who bully or are bullied in childhood? The Finnish "From a Boy to a Man" Study. Sourander, A., Jensen, P., Rönning, J.A., et al. Department of Child Psychiatry, Turku University Hospital, Turku, Finland. Pediatrics 2007 Aug;120(2):397-404..
But we’re not just talking about a few kids who get teased about their braces. One recent study estimated that more than half of high school students experience bullying, most often teasing and name-calling The prevalence of bullying and cyberbullying in high school: a 2011 survey. Gan, S.S., Zhong, C., Das, S., et al. International Journal of Adolescent Mental Health 2013 Jan 22:1-5.. Even worse, the study found many students who’d been bullied said they couldn’t share their experiences with anyone and when they did, no one took them seriously.
Beating the Bullying Issue — The Takeaway
The good news is that individuals and organizations all over the country are taking steps to educate people about bullying and prevent it before it even begins. Recently, artist Shane Koyczan created a video called “To This Day” (above) that features a spoken word poem about what it’s like to be bullied. Government organizations are stepping up, too: The Utah State Legislature recently approved a bill that requires schools to notify parents if students are involved in bullying or other potentially dangerous situations. Other groups focus on educating students who witness bullying on how to help the victims.
While this study suggests bullying isn’t an easy problem to deal with, the common thread between all these efforts is the idea that it’s OK to talk about being bullied, no matter how long ago it happened.
Were you ever bullied as kid? How do you think the experience affected you? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly at @ShanaDLebowitz.