Everywhere I turn these days there seems to be another newspaper or online story about childhood bullying and the often tragic effects on children. Too often, a suicide or criminal activity is linked to the event or an outrageously inappropriate response to bullying from authorities is highlighted. We forget that at the core of the story is a human being suffering ongoing abuse and psychological trauma in an environment that should be safe and supportive.
New research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry reveals that this trauma does not simply fade from memory as bullied children become adults. Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London found that the negative effects of childhood bullying are evident decades after the childhood years are over and they include a host of social, physical and mental health effects that continue to plague the victims even as they reach the age of 50.
The findings were extracted from the British National Child Development Study, a database on children born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week in 1958. The authors of the new study drew on research that followed 7,771 children up to the age of 50. The parents of these individuals provided information on their child’s exposure to bullying when they were 7 years old and again at 11 years of age.
According to lead author, Dr. Ryu Takizawa, “Our study shows that the effects of bullying are still visible nearly four decades later. The impact of bullying is persistent and pervasive, with health, social and economic consequences lasting well into adulthood.” The data revealed that 28 percent of the children in the study had been bullied occasionally and 15 percent had been bullied frequently. The researchers confirmed that these rates of childhood bullying are similar to those in the United Kingdom today.
Bullying statistics in the United States are similar. The federal government reports between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school. A smaller percentage has been cyberbullied. Most bullying consists of verbal and social bullying and is most likely to occur in middle school.
The Kings College study reported that individuals who experienced childhood bullying were more likely to suffer from poorer physical and psychological health and cognitive functioning at age 50. Victims of frequent childhood bullying were at an increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and suicidal thoughts in middle age. The social impacts are equally alarming as bullied children attained lower educational levels and men who experienced bullying as children were more likely to be unemployed or to earn less at their jobs than non-bullied counterparts.
Adults who were bullied as children reported lower quality of life and life satisfaction. They were also less likely to be in a relationship or to have good social support upon which they could rely. When the researchers excluded other factors such as childhood IQ, emotional and behavioral problems, parents’ socioeconomic status and involvement in their child’s life, the harmful, lifelong impacts of bullying remained.
Senior study author, Professor Louise Arseneault, sums up the issue of childhood bullying perfectly. She states that, “We need to move away from any perception that bullying is just an inevitable part of growing-up. Teachers, parents and policy-makers should be aware that what happens in the school playground can have long-term repercussions for children. Programs to stop bullying are extremely important, but we also need to focus our efforts on early intervention to prevent potential problems persisting into adolescence and adulthood.”
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