While the psychological effects of bullying in adolescence are well documented, a new study published Thursday in The American Journal of Psychiatry shows harmful effects can extend decades after the initial bullying. Researchers found those bullied in childhood had lower levels of education, greater physical and cognitive health problems, and poor social functioning throughout their lives, compared to those who were not bullied.
For five decades, The National Child Development Study followed almost 8,000 participants of children born in England, Scotland and Wales. In 1958, they assessed children ages 7-11 and found 28% of the participants were occasionally bullied and 15% were frequently bullied. The researchers checked in with the participants at 23, 45 and 55 and assessed mental health problems, physical health and cognitive health. The study also found men who were bullied were more likely to be unemployed and earn less.
"We found the kids who were victims of bullying didn't manage to move up or move on possibly because they are so used to being pushed down," says Louise Arseneault, a senior investigator on the study, and professor at King's College London. "Even in middle age, some of those bullied may not have as good of jobs or earn as much money."
While those who were bullied did not have a higher dependence on alcohol, the study found mental health problems in the adults who were bullied were similar to those found in studies on long-term effects on children who were abused or placed in public care.
"Generally in mental health you see problems in adulthood are carried on from difficulty the person experienced in childhood," says Daniel Blake, a clinical psychologist in Huntington Woods, Mich.
While the study was undertaken in 1958, in the current digital age there are even more outlets for bullying, and many times what may have been isolated to school is now following kids home. Many states have passed anti-bullying laws or policies that deal directly with cyberbullying. With the many different outlets kids have today, parents have to promote open dialogue with their children, says Stuart Twemlow, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
"Kids can be bullied without parents knowing at all," Twemlow says. "We need to continue talking about bullying so kids can know it's OK to talk about it, OK to cry about it and OK to say my life is horrible."
Cases of cyberbullying have led to several high-profile suicide cases in the USA in the past year. Likewise, the study found the participants who were bullied as children had higher levels of anxiety and suicidal thoughts or even suicidal plans at age 45 than those who were not bullied.
"While a certain portion of kids who are bullied end up fine, this highlights that bullying can contribute to later outcomes in different areas of life," Arseneault says. "Bullying should not be brushed off as a part of growing up."