Depression, suicide attempts, physical health problems, and reduced academic achievement—these are just a few of the negative effects bullying can have on children, according to many studies.
But what happens when those children grow into adults? Does childhood bullying lead to struggles in adulthood?
That’s the question tackled by researchers from the University of Warwick and Duke University Medical Center, whose results were published recently in the journal Psychological Science.
They began to follow participants in North Carolina at ages 11 to 13. The kids were assessed every year until age 16—and once again as young adults, at ages 19 to 26. All in all, 1,273 people participated in every stage of the study.
In childhood and adolescence, participants and their parents reported if they had been bullied or had bullied others in the previous three months. Researchers sorted those who experienced bullying into three categories: victims, bullies, and bully-victims—kids who had been both bullies and victims at some point in time.
As it turned out, victims outnumbered bullies in the study by three to one (305 vs. 100). But the largest portion of study participants formed a fourth category: Those who claimed to have had no experience at all with bullying (789 participants). Bullies were mostly boys, but victims could be either girls or boys.
Then, at the young adult stage, the researchers looked at factors like physical and mental health, risky behaviors, wealth, and social relationships—and they investigated whether the participants had acquired criminal records. When the researchers matched childhood bullying with adult outcomes, they discovered four key insights:
- Bullying is most toxic for those who were both bullies and victims. “Bully-victims in school had the worst health outcomes in adulthood,” write the researchers, “with markedly increased likelihood of having been diagnosed with a serious illness, having been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, regular smoking, and slow recovery from illness.”
- Bullies might be more likely to engage in risky or illegal behaviors in adulthood. When they grew up, bullies were more likely to have been convicted of felonies and to have abused drugs, and they actually tended to be poorer and lonelier than their former victims. However, when researchers controlled for childhood hardships like divorce or psychiatric problems, they found that a bully’s situation didn’t look quite as dim. In other words, bullies tended to have more troubled childhoods—and that may explain both their bullying and the greater likelihood of engaging in illegal behaviors down the road.
- Victims tended to be more successful—but less healthy—than bullies in adulthood. In general, victimized kids grew up to do better than the kids who bullied them. They made more money, had more friends, and were much, much less likely to be convicted of a crime—but they still did worse than those who weren’t bullied at all. And their mental and physical health tended to be worse than everyone else. (When researchers controlled for other childhood hardships, the risks for both victims and bully-victims did not change.)
- All three groups involved in bullying did worse than those who were not. Overall, kids who were touched by bullying—as bullies, victims, or bully-victims—ended up with less education and less money than those who said they had escaped bullying altogether. Kids who encountered bullying in any way also struggled more with social relationships than those were had no experience with bullying.
Thirty-eight percent of the 421 victims and bully-victims were chronically bullied—meaning that it kept happening throughout childhood. This subset often struggled the most, being poorer, less educated, and more isolated than everyone else.
Taken together, these results show how a child can be affected by bullying throughout his or her life—but also reveals that a child can suffer from bullying on both sides of the spectrum, as victim and perpetrator.
“Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up,” conclude the authors, “but throws a long shadow over affected children’s lives.”