Back off, bullies!

Study finds higher risk of mental health problems among the bullied than the maltreated

A new study suggests the bad effects of bullying are worse than those caused by maltreatment, including abuse and neglect.

A new study suggests the bad effects of bullying are worse than those caused by maltreatment, including abuse and neglect. 

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Growing up can sometimes seem like a roller coaster. There are ups and downs and unexpected turns. Abuse or neglect by an adult can make the ride even rougher. But being tormented by another child can leave especially lasting scars. That’s the finding of a new study.

Bullied kids face a high risk of mental health problems as teens and as young adults. Indeed, kids tormented by bullying may be worse off than those who had suffered physical abuse or neglect, the study found.

Bullying is a global problem. About 1 in 3 children worldwide report being bullied at some time by other kids.

Dieter Wolke works at the University of Warwick in England. Until recently, most studies of child victims focused not on bullying but on maltreatment, this psychologist says. Maltreatment includes physical or emotional abuse, neglect or other behaviors that can harm a child.

Wolke’s team wanted to better understand how bullying’s long-term effects compare to those due to maltreatment. They focused on 4,026 children in the United Kingdom and 1,420 more in the United States. Information about bullying and maltreatment was collected for American children to age 13. They collected the same information for British youth up to age 16. The researchers also gathered data on each individual’s mental health as a young adult.

Among the Americans, 36 percent of bullied kids had mental problems later. Those problems included anxiety, which is a state of excessive worry. They also included depression. That is a feeling of hopelessness that can last a long time. Among kids who had been maltreated by adults, 17 percent later suffered mental health problems. That was less than half the rate seen in people who had been bullied as school kids.

In the U.K. group, the difference was less dramatic. Roughly 25 percent of the bullied kids reported mental health problems later, compared with about 17 percent who had been maltreated.

But however you look at it, the findings are disturbing, Wolke says. They show that “bullied children have similar or worse mental health problems later in life to those who are maltreated.” And that’s why he says schools, health services and other agencies  must work together to end bullying.

Studies like this one are important, says Corinna Jenkins Tucker. They bring attention to the lasting impacts of bullying. “Children deserve to be treated with respect from both adults and peers,” she says. A family relations expert at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, she did not work on the new study.

Jenkins Tucker does, however, question the value of comparing bullying to other types of abuse.

Such an approach can make it seem like one type of bad experience is worse than the other, she says. In fact, both types have short- and long-term effects on health. She’d like to see researchers instead study the big picture. They should try to understand how all of these negative experiences together shape children — and sometimes harm them.

In the end, Jenkins Tucker believes it is most important to prevent all such abuse of children in the first place, whether by kids or by adults. 

Power Words

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anxiety  A nervous disorder causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

behavior  The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

bullying   (v. to bully) A group of repeated behaviors that are mean-spirited. They can include teasing, spreading rumors, saying hurtful things and intentionally leaving someone out of groups or activities. Sometimes bullying can include attacks using violence (such as hitting), threats of violence, yelling at someone or abusing someone with violent language. Much bullying takes place in person. But it also may occur online, through emails or via text messages. Newer examples including making fake profiles of people on websites and posting embarrassing photos or videos on social media.

depression  A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

peer     Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features.

psychology  The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.

United Kingdom   Often referred to as Britain, its roughly 64 million people live in the four “countries” of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. More than 80 percent of the UK’s inhabitants live in England. Many people — including UK residents — argue whether the UK is itself a country or instead a confederation of four separate countries. The United Nations and most foreign governments treat the UK as a single nation.

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