In the first study of its kind to assess the compounding effects of bullying over 5 years, researchers have found that a child experiences more severe and lasting health implications the longer he or she is bullied, suggesting that early interventions could reverse the "downward health trajectory" that victims of bullying may experience.
Results of the study were recently reported in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Led by Laura Bogart, from Boston Children's Division of General Pediatrics, the researchers followed a group of over 4,000 children and adolescents from fifth to 10th grade, interviewing them about their mental and physical health and any bullying during grades five, seven and 10.
The team compared different groups of students:
- Those bullied in both the past and present
- Those bullied only in the present
- Those bullied only in the past
- Those who have never experienced bullying.
At any age, bullying was linked with worse mental and physical health, more depressive symptoms and a lower sense of self-worth. And students who reported chronic bullying also experienced more difficulties with physical activities like walking, running or playing sports.
"Our research shows that long-term bullying has a severe impact on child's overall health, and that its negative effects can accumulate and get worse with time," says Bogart.
She calls for more intervention around bullying, "because the sooner we stop a child from being bullied, the less likely bullying is to have a lasting, damaging effect on his or her health down the road," she adds.
Early and ongoing intervention important for victims
The team found that the group of students bullied in both the past and present had the lowest health scores, followed by students only bullied in the present.
Students bullied only in the past had better health scores, but not as good as children who had never been bullied.
This suggests that recent events may be more important than distant ones to a child's health, but the team notes that health consequences "compound over time" and may stay even after the bullying has ceased.
The researchers say their findings emphasize the importance of stopping bullying early and continuously intervening to help with the lingering effects.
Bogart calls for more research to better develop and clinically test bullying prevention and intervention measures:
"There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addressing bullying. But providing teachers, parents and clinicians with best-practices that are evidence-based could better assist those at the front lines helping children cope with this serious problem and lessen the damage it causes."
Medical News Today reported on a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, which suggested victims of childhood bullying fare poorly in adulthood. Findings from the study showed that individuals bullied in childhood were more likely to have a psychiatric disorder, smoke, struggle to keep work and had difficulty maintaining friendships.
The US Department of Health & Human Services runs a website called StopBullying.gov, which provides information and resources on how to prevent and handle bullying and cyberbullying.