February 21st, 2013

Research: Youth bullying effects invade young adulthood

Longitudinal studies of the effects of childhood bullying are rare. Now comes a study of western North Carolina children — ages 9, 11 and 13 — and their parents/caregivers begun in 1993 with 6674 annual interviews of 1420 participants through adolescence (9-16 years of age). Then, 3184 interviews were completed in 2010, 18 years later, when the children were ages 19, 21 and 24-26 years old. Over 80% of the original group of children was tracked into young adulthood.

Children and parents reported whether or not within 3 months of the annual interviews (assessments) they were victims of bullying, bullies or had been both bully and victim (bully/victim).

According to the study, victims and bully/victims differed from children not involved in bullying in family background and psychological functioning factors. Victims are described as withdrawn, unassertive, easily emotionally upset, and as having poor emotional or social understanding, whereas bully/victim tend to be aggressive, easily angered, and frequently bullied by their siblings. Thus bully/victims have few friends who would stand up for them. They are the “henchmen or reinforcers” for bullies and the most troubled children.

The prevalence of bullying victims in childhood and adolescence was 26.1% (at least once), 8.9% (repeatedly). Though boys were more frequent targets than girls (28.8% vs. 23.4%), the sexes were statistically equivalent. Bullying in childhood (23.5% for 9-13 year olds), the frequency was halved in adolescence (10.2%).

Overall, 5% were bullies only, 21.6% were victims only, 4.5% were bully/victims, and 68.9% were neither. Of the bully/victims, more were males (72% vs. 48% female). Of the bullies, more were males (69% vs. 48% female).

Family assessment interviews collected information about family hardships — low socioeconomic status, unstable family structure, family dysfunction, and maltreatment. Diagnoses of several psychiatric disorders were made during childhood. If a problem appeared in childhood, it was revisited when the participants were in their 20’s for the follow-up. Adult psychiatric outcomes were assessed using the Young Adult Psychiatric Assessment (YAPA) (developed at Duke Univ.).

Children who were bullies only were 4 times more likely than those with neither bullying experience to have an adulthood antisocial personality disorder (9.4% vs. 2.1%). This developed separately from disruptive behavior disorder in childhood or family hardship. Several other studies found that being a bully increases the risk of criminal offenses.

Children who had been only victims of bullying compared to those with neither bullying experience had 3 times higher levels of depressive disorders, 4.7 times higher levels of anxiety disorders, 3.6 times higher generalized anxiety, 3.2 times higher panic disorder, and 5.3 times higher agoraphobia levels.

Bully/victims had the highest levels of suicidality, with 24.8% reporting suicidality in young adulthood compared with 5.7% of those in the “neither” group, 5.5 times higher. Those who were bully/victims also had higher levels of all anxiety and depressive disorders when compared to the “neither” group. They had 8.2 times higher levels of depressive disorders, 5 times more generalized anxiety, 13 times the level of panic disorder, and 5 times higher agoraphobia levels.

A key gender difference regarding adult impact of being a bully/victim in childhood is that males reported suicidality more often, whereas females reported agoraphobia.

Authors’ rationale for how victimization might create adult psychological problems

• altered activity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis

• elevated cortisol response is associated with an increased risk for developing depression

• erosion of the length of telomeres, the repetitive TTAGGG sequence at the end of linear chromosomes, has emerged as a promising new biomarker of stress. Accelerated erosion has been found in children exposed to violence (such as bullying, domestic violence, or physical maltreatment)

• a gene × environment interaction by variation in the serotonin transporter gene of children exposed to bullying

• peer rejection has been repeatedly reported to lead to a negative emotional reaction and, depending on depression status, to avoidant coping behavior

In conclusion, childhood bullying affects emotional health in adulthood. About 10% of bullies grow to be troubled antisocial souls (with an APD diagnosis, they manifest psychopathic tendencies). Victims suffer depression, anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia, varying between 3 and 5 times worse than grown children who had no experience with bullying. Worst of all, those who sided with bullies and who were aggressive and angry (the bully/victims dual category), showed the highest frequency of suicidality of all groups. They also suffered the most depression, anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia.


W.E. Copeland, A. Angold, & E.J. Costello. (Feb. 20, 2013) Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, February 21st, 2013 at 12:46 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Social/Mgmt/Epid Sciences, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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