A decades-long study on the effects of childhood bullying confirmed what many researchers, parents and victims probably know too well: The harm doesn’t necessarily fade with age.
Well into midlife — up to age 50 in the study — people who were bullied had higher rates of psychological distress, more economic hardship, fewer social relationships and less satisfaction with their overall quality of life.
“It is striking to show that 40 years after having been bullied in childhood, individuals continue to show persistent and pervasive negative outcomes,” said senior investigator Louise Arseneault of King’s College London in the United Kingdom.
The effects were similar to those of being placed in foster care or facing multiple childhood adversities, researchers said. They were independent of social class, IQ and other predictors of poor outcomes.
The findings from the British National Child Development Study are online today in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
The study is based on more than 7,700 participants, all of them born in one week in 1958, whose parents reported that their children were being bullied between ages 7 and 11 years old. Follow-up assessments took place between ages 23 and 50.
Kip Williams, a psychology professor at Purdue University who studies ostracism, said the potential for re-injury remains. “When you think about social pain — being humiliated or ostracized or embarrassed — thinking about that again causes the pain to resurface,” he said. “You basically re-live that pain over and over again, unlike with physical pain.”
The researchers noted that the study did not attempt to define bullying, relying instead on what parents reported. Rates still were consistent with contemporary findings on prevalence: Of all the children born in that week in 1958, about 28 percent had been exposed to occasional bullying, and 15 percent had been frequently bullied.
Children who suffered the most were at higher risk for depression, anxiety disorders and suicide as adults.
Dr. Stuart Twemlow, a professor of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said the study is well-done and not surprising to those who see the continued fallout from social ostracism and bullying.
“I very much credit the authors for having persisted with the study,” Twemlow said. “And I strongly suggest that governments listen to these kinds of data.”
Twemlow, who has long studied social trauma, said anti-bullying programs in schools generally fail. The key is not a simplistic focus on one word or type of behavior but to create better climates within schools, he said.
The right kind of leadership from principals and teachers is more effective than anti-bullying workshops, Twemlow said. He once counseled a bullied student who moved away from Columbine High School — months before the mass shootings there in 1999 — “because he couldn’t stand the school. And Columbine had an anti-bullying program.”
Both he and Williams said communities need more insight into isolation and bullying because the potential is always there.
“It’s not a very nice thing about us human beings,” Twemlow said. “We can get pleasure from others’ pain.”
By Rita Price - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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