Intervening early to stop bullying is important because the health effects – including anxiety, depression and impaired self-worth – can persist even after bullying stops, a study shows.
The study examines "how the effects of bullying can compound over time or snowball" by focusing on students' past and present bullying experiences, says Laura Bogart, a social psychologist at Boston Children's Hospital and lead author of the study. It is in the March issue of Pediatrics and published online Monday.
Using surveys collected from 4,300 public school students in Houston, Los Angeles and Birmingham, Ala., researchers found that 22% of students reported being bullied in the fifth grade. As in other studies, the likelihood of being bullied declined as students got older, with 5% reporting being victimized in the seventh grade and 3% reporting it in the 10th grade.
The analysis shows that students who reported both past and current bullying scored significantly worse on various health measures, followed by those who reported being bullied in the present only, then those bullied in the past only and those reporting no history of being bullied.
For example, on measures of:
•Psycho-social health (such as anger, fear and anxiety), 45% of 10th-graders bullied in both the past and present scored low compared with 31% of those bullied in the present only, 12% of those bullied in the past only and 7% of those never bullied.
•Depression, 30% of 10th-graders bullied in the past and present exhibited the worst symptoms, compared with 19% of those bullied in the present only, 13% of those bullied in the past only and 8% never bullied.
•Self-worth, 29% of 10th-graders bullied in the past and present had the lowest scores, compared with 20% of those bullied only in the present; 12% of those bullied only in the past and 8% who were not bullied.
•Physical health (such as a student's comfort with playing sports and being physically active), 30% of seventh-graders bullied in both the past and present scored low compared with 24% of those bullied in the present only, 15% of those bulled in the past only and 6% of those never bullied.
At 10th grade, 22% of those bullied in both the past and present scored low on physical health, compared with 26% of those bullied in the present only, but those two percentages are not statistically different, Bogart says.
"The results still support the general pattern of more recent and chronic bullying being related to worse health, as compared to kids who are not bullied or bullied in the past only," she says.
They also reinforce the importance of intervention to stop bullying and the need to intervene again, even if the bullying is not ongoing, to address the persistent effects, Bogart says. "Every adult who's involved in a child's life needs to be aware that bullying is out there," she says. "It really can put a child on a downward trajectory with their health over time, so adults need to look for the signs."
The study's longitudinal approach and examination is important and revealing, says Susan Strauss, a consultant and author of Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Guide to Keeping Kids Safe and Holding Schools Accountable.
What's often referred to as bullying is in fact harassment and a violation of civil rights, says Strauss, who was not involved in the new study. Harassment is abusive behavior that targets someone's gender, religion, race, sexual orientation or national origin, compared with bullying, which is "status-blind," she says.
Failure to distinguish the difference is one of the things that "prevents harassment from being dealt with adequately," Strauss says.
The federal government's stopbullying.gov website says these signs may point to a bullying problem:
•Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry
•Frequent headaches or stomachaches, feeling sick or faking illness
•Changes in eating habits, such as suddenly skipping meals or binge eating.
•Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.
•Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, not wanting to go to school.
•Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations.
•Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem.
•Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home or talking about suicide.