Bullying in childhood “throws a long shadow” into victims’ adult lives, suggests research indicating long-term negative consequences for health, job prospects and relationships.
The study, from Warwick University in the UK and Duke University in the US, tracked more than 1400 people from aged 9 to 26, and concluded bullying should not be seen as “a harmless rite of passage”.
The long-term impact of bullying in childhood was examined through the experiences of three different groups – those who had been bullied, those who had carried out the bullying and those who had been both victims of bullying and had also carried out bullying themselves.
The research, published in Psychological Science, suggests the most negative outcomes were for those who had been both victims and perpetrators of bullying, described in the study as “bully-victims”. Described as “easily provoked, low in self-esteem, poor at understanding social cues, and unpopular with peers”, these children grew into adults six times more likely to have a “serious illness, smoke regularly or develop a psychiatric disorder”.
By their mid-20s, these former “bully-victims” were more likely to be obese, to have left school without qualifications, to have drifted through jobs and less likely to have friends.
All of those involved in bullying, as victims or aggressors, had outcomes that were generally worse than the average for those who had not been involved in bullying.
Those who had been victims of bullying, without becoming bullies themselves, were more likely to have mental health problems, more serious illnesses and had a greater likelihood of being in poverty. But compared with “bully-victims” they were more likely to have been successful in education and making friends.
There were also distinctive patterns for those who had been bullies, but who had not been bullied themselves.
These “pure bullies” were more likely to have been sacked from jobs, to be in a violent relationship and to be involved in risky or illegal behaviour, such as getting drunk, taking drugs, fighting, lying and having one-night stands with strangers. They were much more likely to have committed offences such as breaking into property. However in terms of health and wealth, bullies had more successful outcomes than either the victims of bullying or those who were both bullies and victims. Such “pure bullies” were identified as often being strong and healthy and socially capable – with their manipulative and aggressive behaviour being seen as “deviant” rather than reflecting that they were “emotionally troubled”.
I’ve been using the term bullying in it’s broad sense, but we are all aware that there are different types of bullying. The study has included verbal, physical and psychological bullying, with the comparisons between the groups being adjusted to take into account of social background factors such as family stability.
I’m really pleased to see a study like this come to light. As a victim of an awful lot of bullying in the early stages of my life, I know first hand how damaging it is come later life. It can become a case of who can you trust and where you can turn to, often feeling like there is no one. It then becomes difficult to interact with anyone, which doesn’t bode well when going to a job interview (if you even get that far in the application process in this day and age). It is thanks to studies like this one that this subject gets brought up, so for me schools need to be doing more to tackle this issue than simply reprimanding a bully with a detention. For me this includes working with health authorities (who themselves could do with some more tools) to identify, monitor and deal with the unwanted ill-effects of bullying. It is impossible to stamp out bullying completely, as it is an unfortunate part of life, but we can certainly reduce the amount of bullying and confront the ill-effects head on.