The effects of bullying on childhood victims from the 1960s—including depression, anxiety, and psychological distress—were still visible roughly four decades after they were bullied, researchers wrote in a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry Friday.
Researchers tracked participants in the British National Child Development Study, a cohort of people born in the first week of 1958. They measured psychological impacts on nearly 8,000 participants whose parents had reported exposure to bullying when they were between 7 and 11 years old.
After analyzing follow-up assessments participants completed through adulthood, researchers concluded that “childhood bullying victimization was associated with a lack of social relationships, economic hardship, and poor perceived quality of life at age 50.” Even when researchers controlled for other forms of childhood adversity, the impact on lifelong well-being for bullying victims was similar to that of being placed in foster care, the study’s authors wrote.
About 28 percent of children in the British National Child Development Study were occasionally bullied, and 15 percent had been frequently bullied. Researchers wrote:
The developmental mechanisms that translate childhood bullying victimization into poor mental, physical, and cognitive health in adulthood remain unclear. One possibility is that poor mental health outcomes are a function of symptoms that developed closer in time to bullying exposure. Untreated signs of distress appearing early in life may be early precursors to a life marked by symptoms of anxiety and depression. A second possibility is that bullying victimization generates further abuse from peers or adults, forming the first stage in a cycle of victimization that perpetuates itself over time and across situations."
Research like this is a reminder that schools need to take bullying seriously. Some adults surely struggle with the concept because the term “bullying” is pretty loosely defined and subjective. And the rush of concern about bullying in recent years can sometimes seem at odds with encouragement to build resilience and self-sufficiency in children. How do we determine the line between conflict children can and should handle on their own and abuse that requires adult intervention? Plenty of folks are asking that question while also working to prevent bullying before it starts.
You can dig into the statistical analysis by reading the whole study here.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.