A study of middle- and high school students discovered bullies are more likely to use substances such as cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana.

Additionally, bully-victims — youth who are both perpetrators and victims — were more likely to use substances than were victims and non-involved youth.

“Our findings suggest that one deviant behavior may be related to another,” said Kisha Radliff, Ph.D., lead author of the study.

“For example, youth who bully others might be more likely to also try substance use. The reverse could also be true in that youth who use substances might be more likely to bully others.”

The researchers didn’t find as strong a link between victims of bullying and substance use.

The study by Radliff and her Ohio State colleagues will appear in the April 2012 issue of the journal Addictive Behaviors.

The investigators reviewed data from a survey of 74,247 students enrolled in all public, private and Catholic middle and high schools in Franklin County, Ohio.

Among the 152 questions on the survey were eight that involved bullying, either as a victim or perpetrator. Students were asked specific questions about how often they told lies or spread false rumors about others, pushed people around to make them afraid, or left someone out of a group to hurt them. They were also asked how often they were the victims of such actions.

Survey questions also asked how often they used cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. In this study, users were defined as those who reported use at least once a month.

Researchers discovered bullying behavior occurs more often in middle-school than high school while substance use was more prevalent among high school students.

About 30 percent of middle-school students were bullies, victims or bully-victims, compared to 23 percent of those in high school.

Fewer than 5 percent of middle-school youth used cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana. But among high school students, about 32 percent reported alcohol use, 14 percent used cigarettes and 16 percent used marijuana.

A significant finding from the study was the association between substance use and bullying as substance use varied according to the amount of bullying.

For example, among middle-school students, only 1.6 percent of those not involved in bullying reported marijuana use. But 11.4 percent of bullies and 6.1 percent of bully-victims used the drug. Findings showed that 2.4 percent of victims were marijuana users.

Among high school students, 13.3 percent of those not involved in bullying were marijuana users – compared to 31.7 percent of bullies, 29.2 percent of bully-victims, and 16.6 percent of victims. Similar results were found for alcohol and cigarette use.

According to Radliff, statistical analysis suggested substance use was much higher than expected for bullies and bully-victims.

“That suggests there is a relationship between experimenting with substances and engaging in bullying behavior,” she said.

Radliff said these results may lead to ways anti-bullying initiatives can be improved.

“Many schools are mandating anti-bullying programs and policies, and we think they need to take this opportunity to address other forms of deviant behavior, such as substance use,” she said.

This might be especially important in middle school, where bullying is more prevalent, but substance use is still relatively rare.

“If we can intervene with bullies while they’re in middle school, we may be able to help them before they start experimenting with substance use,” she said.

Source: Ohio State University