A new study shows that serious illness, struggling to hold down a job, and poor social relationships are just some of the adverse outcomes faced by adults exposed to bullying in childhood.
“We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up,” said Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick, who led the research team with William E. Copeland of Duke University Medical Center.
“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 significant.”
For the study, the researchers assessed 1,420 young people four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16 years and again between the ages of 24 and 26.
The investigation looked at the impact of bullying on all those involved: The victims, the bullies, and those who fall into both categories, known as “bully-victims.”
The study found that bully-victims are perhaps the most vulnerable group of all. They had the 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.
“In the case of bully-victims, it shows how bullying can spread when left untreated,” Wolke said.
“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.”
The study found that people in all three groups were more than twice as likely to have difficulty in keeping a job or committing to saving money compared to those not involved in bullying. This meant they had a higher likelihood of being impoverished in young adulthood.
However, the study also revealed very few bad 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, according to the researchers.
“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 finds ways of removing the need for these children to bully others and, in doing so, protect the many children suffering at the hand of bullies — they are the ones who are hindered later in life.”
Although there was no real difference in the likelihood of being married or having children, people in all three 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 study was published in Psychological Science.