A new study shows that serious illness, struggling to hold
down a regular job, and poor social relationships are just some of the adverse
outcomes in adulthood faced by those exposed to bullying in childhood.
It has long been acknowledged that bullying at a young age
presents a problem for schools, parents and public policy makers alike.
Although children spend more time with their peers than their parents, there is
relatively little published research on understanding the impact of these
interactions on their lives beyond school.
The results of the new study, published in Psychological
Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, highlight the
extent to which the risk of problems related to health, poverty, and social
relationships are heightened by exposure to bullying. The study is notable
because it looks into many factors that go beyond health-related outcomes.
Psychological scientists Dieter Wolke of the University of
Warwick and William E. Copeland of Duke University Medical Center led the
research team, looking beyond the study of victims and investigating the impact
on all those affected: the victims, the bullies themselves, and those who fall
into both categories, so-called "bully-victims".
"We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless,
almost inevitable, part of growing up," says Wolke. "We need to
change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the
individual and the country as a whole; the effects are long-lasting and
The "bully-victims" were at greatest risk for health
problems in adulthood, over six times more likely to be diagnosed with a
serious illness, smoke regularly, or develop a psychiatric disorder, compared to
those not involved in bullying.
The results show that bully-victims are perhaps the most
vulnerable group of all. This group may turn to bullying after being bullied
themselves, as they may lack the emotional regulation or support required to
cope with it.
"In the case of bully-victims, it shows how bullying
can spread when left untreated," Wolke added. "Some interventions are
already available in schools but new tools are needed to help health
professionals to identify, monitor, and deal with the ill-effects of bullying.
The challenge we face now is committing the time and resources to these
interventions to try and put an end to bullying."
All the groups were more than twice as likely to have
difficulty in keeping a job, or committing to saving, compared to those not
involved in bullying. As such, they displayed a higher propensity for being
impoverished in young adulthood.
However, the study revealed very few ill effects of being
the bully. After accounting for the influence of childhood psychiatric problems
and family hardships which were prevalent among bullies, the act of bullying itself
didn't seem to have a negative impact in adulthood.
"Bullies appear to be children with a prevailing
antisocial tendency who know how to get under the skin of others, with
bully-victims taking the role of their helpers," explained Wolke. "It
is important to find ways of removing the need for these children to bully
others and, in doing so, protect the many children suffering at the hand of
Although they showed no real difference in the likelihood of
being married or having children, all groups showed signs of having difficulty
forming social relationships, particularly when it came to maintaining long
term friendships or good ties with parents in adulthood.
The research assessed 1 420 participants four to six times
between the ages of 9 and 16 years and adult outcomes between 24-26 years of