Bullies and their victims populate school yards, parks, and neighborhoods. Until recently, bullying was often considered kid stuff, but that’s changing.
Dr. Dieter Wolke of the Department of Psychology and Division of Mental Health and Wellbeing, University of Warwick and colleagues set out to study the long-term impact of bullying. Did effects linger into adulthood?
During childhood, victims of bullying do less well in school and suffer physically, psychologically and emotionally. On the other hand, as Wolke noted in an interview with Decoded Science, “From our previous research we noted that bullies, in particular, may be quite healthy and strong children.”
Wolke and colleagues set out to find out if the various problems experienced by victims persisted into adulthood. What happened to the bully? What about the child who fit into both categories, the bully/victim?
Bullies and Victims: The Great Smokey Mountain Study’s Longitudinal Research Design
Tracking the same subjects over time is a powerful tool that enables researchers to follow the life courses of individuals and examine outcomes. Using the Great Smokey Mountain Study data base, with information culled from children from eleven counties in Western North Carolina, Wolke and associates compared the long-term effects of bullying. The researchers recruited children from three age groups: 9, 11 and 13 in 1993. The researchers then completed yearly assessments with the child and caregiver until the child reached age 16, and then with the study subject alone again at ages 19, 21, 24 and 26.
Answers to questions such as “Do you ever do things to upset other people on purpose or try to hurt them on purpose?” and ‘Are other boys and girls mean to you?” were used to identify victims, bullies and bully/victims.
The strongest association Wolfe and colleagues found was that victims, bullies and bully/victims all suffered financially. The researchers report, “[a]ll groups were at risk for being impoverished in young adulthood and having difficulty keeping jobs.” In terms of education, “[b]oth bullies and bully-victims displayed impaired educational attainment.”
The study also associated health status, and engaging in risky and illegal behaviors with bullying, especially with being a bully/victim. The study reports, “Bully-victims in school had the worst health outcomes in adulthood…with markedly increased likelihood of having been diagnosed with a serious illness, having been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, regular smoking, and slow recovery from illness.” Bullies and victims also experienced higher levels of “psychiatric problems and regular smoking.”
Bullies were more likely to engage in “illegal and risky behavior” as were bully/victims, but to a lesser extent. According to the study, “Bullies had elevated rates for a range of behaviors, including felonies, substance use, and self reported illegal behavior.“
Bullies appeared to be at higher risk of bad outcomes not because of bullying, per se, but because of the psychiatric impairment behind the bullying. The study reports, “Bullies risk for all adult outcomes was no longer elevated after we adjusted for confounds.” In an his interview with Decoded Science, Wolke explained that “it means their problems in these areas are explained by a general antisocial tendency and substance abuse rather than being involved in bullying as bully.”
While no one group was less likely to marry, Wolke reminded Decoded Science that the oldest participants were only 26. Still, the study found “social relationships were disrupted for all subjects who had bullied or been bullied.” Bullies, bully/victims, and victims all “had problems keeping friends and poor relationships with their parents,” Wolke added.
Bullying Intervention is Smart
Recent research demonstrates that the effects of bullying are serious and long-lasting, especially for bully/victims. Wolke also notes, “it appears that those who are bully/victims fair the worst. It seems they are socially defeated and helpless and this lasts into their adult life.”
Because of the devastating impact on bully/victims, Wolke would like to understand them better. He asks, ” who are the children who are bully/victims – where do they come from – are they victims who fight back or bullies who lose status?
To lessen the likelihood of bullying, Dr. Wolke favors programs such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP)–“A shared, evidence-based understanding and good practical skills among adults in handling bullying are key objectives.” Olweus strives to educate the school, family and individuals about bullying and how to prevent it through “structured implementation.”
As Dr. Dieter Wolke noted in his interview with Decoded Science, “The most important finding is firstly, that the consequences of being bullied are long term – extend into adulthood. Being bullied is NOT a harmless rite of passage as some still think.”
Olweus International. Olweus program. Accessed August 21, 2013.
Wolke, D. et. al. Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcomes. (2013) Association for Psychological Science. SAGE Publications.