Researchers are calling for bullying prevention to be given priority alongside other child protection measures following new evidence that it harms young people’s mental health in ways similar to child abuse by parents. Their groundbreaking analysis of data gathered in Britain and the United States finds that the long-term impact of bullying in terms of anxiety, depression and self-harm can, in some cases, be even worse. Maltreatment by parents and bullying by peers have both previously been shown to have enduring adverse effects on the physical and mental health of victims. But researchers at the Universities of Warwick and Sheffield wanted to know whether harm was attributable to combined experiences of parental abuse and bullying, or whether bullying exerted a uniquely damaging effect.They analyzed data from two large longitudinal surveys of parents and children: the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALPSAC) in the UK, following children from pre-birth in the early 1990s to young adulthood and the Great Smoky Mountains Study (GSMS) in America, which followed cohorts of children aged 9, 11 and 13 in North Carolina through their teenage years. In each dataset, the researchers identified four groups: those who experienced bullying and maltreatment during childhood, those who experienced only maltreatment, those who experienced only bullying, and those who experienced neither.
Their statistical analysis confirmed that victimization through both parental maltreatment and peer bullying increased the risk of later mental health problems. However, the risks of experiencing anxiety, depression or engaging in self-harm were greater among children who had experienced bullying without being abused or neglected by their parents than among those who had been maltreated, but not experienced bullying.The overlap between victimization by parents and by peers turned out to be extensive. Four out of ten young people in both the British and American surveys who had been abused or neglected during childhood had also been bullied.But while the levels of mental health problems among those who had been both maltreated and bullied were high, they were no higher than among young people who had experienced bullying alone. Thus, the negative effects of maltreatment on adult mental health may have been a consequence of later bullying by peers.Limitations to the study include the use of survey data that largely pre-dated the spread of social media and cyber-bullying. Nor did the analysis consider the relative severity of the maltreatment, bullying or poor mental health that young people had experienced.
Nevertheless, the replication of findings across data sets from two countries, locations and cultures reinforces the researchers’ conclusion that bullying can be viewed as both a consequence of previous, negative experiences, and also a cause or risk factor for subsequent mental health problems.Discussing the implications for child protection policies, their study cites World Health Organization data from Canada, the US and European countries suggesting one in three children experience some form of bullying. Yet government prevention efforts focus overwhelmingly on child abuse within families rather than protecting children from maltreatment by peers.The study, published in Lancet Psychiatry concludes that: “Since bullying is frequent and found in all social groups, and current evidence supports that bullied children have similar or worse long-term mental health outcomes that maltreatment, this imbalance requires attention.”Schools, health and social services should all be prepared to re-examine their anti-bullying policies and co-ordinated reponses in the light of its findings.
Lereya, S. T., Copeland, W. E., Costello, E. J., Wolke, D. (2015). Adult mental health consequences of peer bullying and maltreatment in childhood: two cohorts in two countries. Lancet Psychiatry (2) 524-531.Back to Archives