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Long-Term Bullying Effects?

Posted Feb 22 2013 11:02am
Bullying in childhood appears to be a real bummer beyond childhood.

new study  links childhood bullying to psychiatric disorders in young adulthood. It's one of the first long-term studies tracking "the effects" of bullying and involves a large sample of over 1,400 youths in Western North Carolina. Researchers from Duke University asked kids about their experiences with bullying then followed up with them over a decade later as part of a larger project on general mental health.  Kids (and their parents) were first surveyed when the kids were between 9 and 12, then later in their twenties.

Here's the bullying break-down
5% reported being only a bully

21.6% victims only 

4.5%  both bully and victim

The young adults who reported being victims were more than 4 times as likely to report having an anxiety disorder as those not involved in bullying. Those who were bullies (but not victims) were over 4 times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder.

Most disturbing? The kids who were both victims and bullies had the roughest outcomes
Bullies who were also victims were particularly troubled: they were 14.5 times more likely to develop panic disorder as adults, compared to those who did not experience bullying, and 4.8 times more likely to experience depression. Men who were both bullies and victims were 18.5 times more likely to have had suicidal thoughts in adulthood, compared to the participants who had not been bullied or perpetuators. Their female counterparts were 26.7 times more likely to have developed agoraphobia, compared to children not exposed to bullying. Effects of Bullying Last Into Adulthood, Study Finds via New York Times
This is bad news with too many suffering from depression or panic attacks. That sucks for sure but let's break it down.

The better news:

Almost 70% reported never being bullies or victims. 

This is a good start for establishing the long-term "effects" of bullying. Notice this is a correlational study and thus unable to show effects but it did control for family disturbances, poverty and childhood psychiatric conditions so that's encouraging.  However, it didn't address the frequency of bullying so it's unclear if those most involved were the most at risk which would make sense. If kids reported so much as a single incident they were counted as being a victim (or victim/bully). Also, the study only addressed bullying at school. 

Not sure if anyone's ventured to the far western reaches of North Carolina (yes part of Appalachia) but as it turns out, I once lived there and assessed children and their parents there as part of another Duke study and it was the toughest job of my life (other than my stint at a group home for violent female youths). I suspect this isn't a particularly representative sample.

Now let's play a quick round of Spot the Surprised Researcher. I'm adding to my roll call of Surprised Researchers (check out the new tab up top). The lead researcher, William Copeland was surprised a couple times in the press. 
"To my surprise at least, there were some very strong long-term effects on their risk for depression, anxiety, suicidality, a whole host of outcomes that we know just wreak havoc on adult lives," said study researcher William Copeland, a clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center. Via HuffPo
"I was surprised that a decade down the road after they've been victimized, when they've kind of transitioned to adulthood, we would still see these emotional marks for the victims and also the bullies/victims." Via Reuters
Mea culpa.  I may be doomed to the fifth circle of bullying hell for that but honestly, there are simply too many researchers expressing disbelief at their own results.  Help me root out this annoying social ill, send me links to surprised researchers and I'll add it to my list.

 The Study: bit.ly/Zjwxj3 JAMA Psychiatry, online February 20, 2013
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