It’s overwhelmingly likely that you’ve been involved in bullying at some point in your school-aged years, or know of someone who was. Some argue that bullying is so typical that it could be considered a ‘rite of passage’ of growing up. This passive attitude fails to consider how bullying can have long-term effects on both mental and physical health for both parties involved. Most bullying research has a short-term focus on the signs of bullying and ways to deal with its immediate effects. More research, however, should focus on how bullying in the teenage years affects adolescent development and adulthood. How do short term effects of bullying turn into long-term patterns?
To start answering that question, we should first take a look at how frequently bullying occurs. According to a 2007 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 1 out of 3 school-aged children in either middle or high school reported that they had been the victim of bullying in the past school year. Furthermore 1 in 9 high school students have reported that they have been physically bullied (i.e. pushed, shoved, tripped, etc.). In 2009, the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 28% of US students in middle and high school experienced bullying at school, while 6% of students reported being cyberbullied outside of school. These statistics are high, but the actual number of victims is probably even higher – some students choose not to share whether they’ve been bullied. Bullying occurs at a much higher frequency that one may anticipate, and therefore, continues to be cause for concern considering the detrimental effects it can have.
Clearly, bullying is a widespread problem and has been for years. That makes it especially important to ensure that people are not only aware of bullying and how to prevent it, but also that they understand its short-and long-term effects on adolescent development. According to the Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, signs of bullying include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, loneliness, headaches, poor eating habits, self-destructive behaviors, suicidal thoughts, and difficulty sleeping. Over time, the short-term effects of bullying can lead to long-term effects, including a higher risk for mental health problems, substance abuse, academic problems, violence to others, and even suicide.
Of these effects, depression poses a particularly severe danger. Depression in adolescents can interfere with their ability to function on a daily basis, according to the Center for Adolescent Health at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In a 2007 study regarding the effects of bullying, adolescents who were bullied in school were found to be four times more likely to attempt suicide and five times more likely to have serious suicidal thoughts. In studies regarding long term effects, adults who were bullied when they were teenagers have higher levels of depression and lower self-esteem. But the damage doesn’t end with the victim. In particular, males who were bullies in their teens were found to be more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, including truancy, drug use, shoplifting, and vandalism. They were also four times more likely to be convicted of crimes by the age of 24 when compared to non-bullies.
In a 2013 longitudinal study observing the long-term effects of bullying, the results are startling. Of all four groups of the study – the victims of bullying, the bullies, those who were not involved in bullying, and those who were both a bully and a victim – the victims of the bullying fared the worst. They had fewer social skills and were more impulsive and aggressive. Compared to the group that wasn’t bullied, victims had 14 times the risk for a panic disorder, five times the risk for depressive disorder and ten times the risk for suicidal thoughts and/or behavior.
The effects of bullying are not limited to the middle and high school years. It is not something that someone simply gets over. Bullying in the early adolescent years plays a part in personality development and significantly affects mental health in the adult years. Rather than focusing on the instances of bullying the occur on playgrounds or in bathrooms, we should accept that this is a national health concern that continues beyond middle and high school. Its effects ingrain themselves into our everyday lives for many years. For that reason, bullying needs to be taken more seriously regarding its short term effects as well as the long-term impact it has on development.