February 17, 2014
News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study: Harm from Bullying Can Linger
Bullying can have lasting effects on children's well-being, even years after it stops, a new study suggests. And kids who are bullied the longest seem to have the worst effects. The study is based on surveys of nearly 4,300 children. The same children were asked questions in 5th, 7th and 10th grades. About 30% reported being regularly bullied on at least one survey. This was defined as being physically pushed around, or teased, at least once a week. Children also were asked about their normal activities and their physical and mental health. Those who were bullied were more likely than other kids to have depression symptoms or low self-esteem. They also reported lower mental, social and physical well-being. About 3% to 4% of the children reported being bullied on all 3 surveys. By 10th grade, 45% of those who were bullied for all this time had "low" mental well-being, researchers said. This compares with 31% of kids with current bullying only, 12% with past bullying only and 6% of those who were never bullied. The journal Pediatrics published the study online. HealthDay News wrote about it February 17.
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
The effects of bullying are real -- and can last.
That was the finding of a study just released in the journal Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Researchers surveyed 4,297 youth. They asked questions when the youth were in 5th, 7th and 10th grades. They asked about bullying as well as physical and mental health. What they found was worrisome.
- About 30% of the youth reported frequent bullying during at least one of the surveys. That is a scary statistic.
- Nearly 31% of those who reported current bullying also reported a very low quality of life. So did 45% of those who were bullied both in the past and the present.
- Those who were bullied, especially at the time of the survey, were more likely to report being in poor health.
- Depression was more common in youth who were bullied, especially those who were bullied in the past and present.
- Even when the bullying stops, the effects can last. Children who were bullied only in the past were more likely to report health problems, depression or poor quality of life than those who were never bullied.
None of this is surprising. It's certainly possible that some of the mental health and quality of life issues led to the bullying. Children with disabilities and mental health problems may be more likely to be targeted as victims. But we do know that bullying can have serious effects on the well-being of children.
Either way, every time it is laid out like this, every time we see the numbers, it does raise the question: Why aren't we doing more to stop bullying?
What Changes Can I Make Now?
It's easy, and even tempting, to minimize bullying. It's easy to chalk it up to "kids being kids" or "a phase." It's easy to think that bullying is no big deal. But studies like this one reinforce that it is a big deal.
Bullying also is easy to miss. Much of it happens out of the view of adults, in hallways and bathrooms and playgrounds and online. Bullies are often popular kids and good students. They are often liked and admired by teachers and parents. And victims are often too embarrassed to ask for help -- or may not even realize that what is happening is bullying. They may think that it is their fault.
It's also easy to forget that bullies are often victims themselves. That's often part of why they bully in the first place. Bullies are also at risk for future mental health and other problems in adulthood.
Parents, teachers and everyone who works with children and teens should do whatever they can to be aware of what is going on with them. It's very important for them to talk with these children and teens about bullying, and help them understand how words and actions can hurt. It's also important to talk about the role of the bystander, because they can make all the difference. If the bystanders ignore or encourage bullying, it's more likely to continue; if they discourage it or stand up for the victim, it's more likely to stop.
There should be zero tolerance for bullying of any kind in families, schools, sports teams and anywhere else youth live and congregate. There should be rules -- and those rules should be enforced.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
As we learn more about the effects of bullying, I hope that it will strengthen our resolve to do something to stop it -- and to help both victims and bullies get the help they need.