Oddly enough, I find myself completely unsurprised to learn that childhood bullying is linked to a higher risk of psychological disorders in adulthood. It’s more the other way. I find myself wondering why anyone would think it wouldn’t be.
A significant study from Duke, out today, provides the best evidence we’ve had thus far that bullying in childhood is linked to a higher risk of psychological disorders in adulthood. The results came as a surprise to the research team. “I was a skeptic going into this,” lead author and Duke psychiatry professor William E. Copeland told me over the phone, about the claim that bullying does measurable long-term psychological harm. “To be honest, I was completely surprised by the strength of the findings. It has certainly given me pause. This is something that stays with people.”
So before the study he thought it was something that didn’t stay with people?
Hmm. Maybe it’s not so strange to think that. There is that funny way that suddenly childhood miseries get much smaller once you are more or less adult and independent. I know that’s a common experience, at least in this part of the world where people go away to school or get jobs around age 18. It does seem to put it all in proportion.
Anyway. There is this new evidence.
I’m less surprised, because as I explain in my new book about bullying, Sticks and Stones, earlier research has shown that bullying increases the risk for many problems, including low academic performance in school and depression (for both bullies and victims) and criminal activity later in life (bullies). But the Duke study is important because it lasted for 20 years and followed 1,270 North Carolina children into adulthood. Beginning at the ages of 9, 11, and 13, the kids were interviewed annually until the age of 16, along with their parents, and then multiple times over the years following.
Based on the findings, Copeland and his team divided their subjects into three groups: People who were victims as children, people who were bullies, and people who were both. The third group is known as bully-victims. These are the people who tend to have the most serious psychological problems as kids, and in the Duke study, they also showed up with higher levels of anxiety, depressive disorders, and suicidal thinking as adults. The people who had only experienced being victims were also at heightened risk for depression and anxiety. And the bullies were more likely to have an antisocial personality disorder.
It’s not just being bullied. Bullying is bad for you. Yeh I figured that.
It’s important to point out that Copeland and other researchers don’t define bullying broadly, in a way that encompasses a lot of mutual conflict among kids, or one-time fighting. Bullying is physical or verbal harassment that takes place repeatedly and involves a power imbalance—one kid, or group of kids, making another kid miserable by lording power over him. As Dan Olweus, the Scandinavian psychologist who launched the field of bullying studies in the 1960s, has been arguing for many years, this is a particular form of harmful aggression. And so the effort to prevent bullying isn’t about pretending that kids will always be nice to each other, or that they don’t have to learn to weather some adversity.
This is what makes the internet so peculiar in the context of bullying - it shoves us adults back into that stifling hermetic world of childhood, where physical or verbal harassment that takes place repeatedly and involves a power imbalance is just normal.