The impact of bullying can last a lifetime

A study of the long term impact of bullying

This blog was written by Louise Arseneault, a Professor in Developmental Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

Young victims of bullying are at risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression and conduct problems, but these problems can sometimes persist even after the bullying has stopped.

In a recent study, we examined the adult outcomes of children who were bullied when they were 7 or 11 years old. The data used for this study came from 7,771 participants who were born during one week in 1958 in England, Scotland and Wales, and followed up until the age of 50.

Our findings show that the impact of bullying is still visible up to mid-life, four decades after people were bullied.

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We found that people who were frequently bullied in childhood still experienced symptoms of depression, and anxiety when they reached mid-life. They also reported more suicidal thoughts than people who were not bullied in childhood.

The link between childhood bullying and poor outcomes in mid-life remained even after considering childhood factors that may make participants more likely to be bullied in the first place or to show poor outcomes at mid-life. These included childhood emotional and behavioural problems, childhood IQ, parents’ socioeconomic status, and low parental involvement.

We found that the associations between childhood bullying and poor adult outcomes were of a similar magnitude to other forms of childhood adversity such as being placed in care.

The impact of bullying is not only persistent but also pervasive, with health, social and economic consequences still visible well into adulthood.

We found that the impact of bullying was not limited to mental health problems, but extended to poor physical and cognitive health and worse social and economic outcomes.

People who were frequently bullied in childhood were more likely to have lower educational levels, with men who were bullied more likely to be unemployed and earn less. Social relationships and wellbeing were also affected. Individuals who had been bullied were less likely to be in a relationship, to have good social network, and were more likely to report lower quality of life and life satisfaction.

Our study is the first to show that the impact of bullying is still visible 40 years later. This should serve as a stark reminder that we need to move away from any perception that bullying is harmless and part of normal growing up. Instead, we need to see bullying alongside other forms of childhood abuse such as physical maltreatment and neglect.

It’s now clear that not only do we need to increase our efforts towards reducing bullying in schools and the community, but we also need to provide better support to these young victims because their problems may last a lifetime.

We need to be vigilant to early signs that something is wrong: children not wanting to go to school, failing grades, crying. Parents and siblings must get involved in supporting family members who may be targeted by bullies. If symptoms persist or create interference with day-to-day life, it may be advisable to consult a health professional.

This blog was contributed by Louise Arsenault who co-wrote the paper "Adult Health Outcomes of Childhood Bullying Victimization: Evidence From a Five-Decade Longitudinal British Birth Cohort".

Tagged in: Bullying
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