A joint study by psychologists in the UK and the US, which analyzes the effects of childhood bullying on adult outcomes, shows that bullying has detrimental consequences for the victims but few negative effects for the perpetrators.

The study, published in Psychological Science and led by Professor Dieter Wolke of Warwick University in the UK and Dr. William E. Copeland of Duke University Medical Center, is the first of its kind to investigate the effects of childhood bullying on adulthood.

Research was based on a longitudinal database of assessment interviews from The Great Smoky Mountain Study, a population-based study of children aged 9, 11, and 13. A total of 1,420 participants from 11 counties in western North Carolina were recruited in 1993.

Participants were interviewed about their experiences of bullying at different stages during their childhood and in follow-up interviews reporting outcomes in early adulthood.

They were organized into four different categories: victims, bullies, non-bullied children and “bully-victims,” which are victims who later turned bully.

The results of the study show that of the four groups, the bully-victim proved the most vulnerable group of all, suffering several adverse consequences in adulthood, including:

  • Increased likelihood of psychiatric disorder diagnosis
  • Increased likelihood of smoking on a regular basis
  • Slow recovery rate from illness
  • Poor academic achievement, struggling to keep work, low economic wealth
  • Less likely to form saving habits in young adulthood
  • Difficulty in maintaining friendships and positive relations with parents.

Additionally, there was evidence to support a “dose-response effect” – the change in effect caused by differing levels of exposure to bullying after a certain amount of time – for poor social outcomes.

There was no reported difference in any of the groups to indicate effects on whether an individual would get married or have children.

The researchers note that bully-victim situations occur more often when victims are from deprived families, show poor emotional regulation, or have mental health problems and lack the resources to deal with the stress.

Prof. Dieter Wolke says:

In the case of bully-victims, it shows how bullying can spread when left untreated. 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 resource to these interventions to try and put an end to bullying.”

He adds: “We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up. 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.”

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