Children who are bullied by their peers are at greater risk of developing mental health problems in early adulthood than those who are physically or emotionally abused by an adult, according to a study published recently in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.
The findings underscore the need for school officials, public health officials and other adults to take peer bullying seriously and to implement policies to reduce its incidence, say the authors of the study.
“Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up,” said Dieter Wolke, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychology at the University of Warwick, in a released statement.
Previous research has shown, of course, that maltreatment by adults (defined as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, as well as neglect and other “severe maladaptive parenting”) and bullying by peers can cause children to grow up to have higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.
Wolke and his colleagues wanted to determine if one of these forms of abuse was worse than the other.
For the study, the researchers examined data on 4,026 British children and 1,420 American children whose families were participating in two ongoing cohort studies (The Great Smoky Mountain Study in the U.S. and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the U.K.).
The British children were born between April 1991 and December 1992. The American children were born about a decade earlier.
Parents filled out questionnaires about their child’s health and development and about whether the child had been maltreated by an adult or bullied in school. In addition, the parents — and the children — were repeatedly interviewed about abuse and bullying throughout the study. The children also underwent periodic psychological assessments.
The study found that among the British children, 8.5 percent reported being maltreated, 29.7 percent reported being bullied and 7.0 percent reported being both maltreated and bullied.
Among the American children, 15.0 percent reported being maltreated, 16.3 percent reported being bullied and 9.8 percent reported being both maltreated and bullied.
Wolke and his colleagues then analyzed the data to assess the risk that maltreatment and/or bullying had on the children’s mental health — specifically, on a higher incidence of depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies — once they reached young adulthood. The researchers found that in both groups of children, those who were bullied by their peers but not maltreated by adults were more likely to have mental health problems than those who were maltreated but not bullied.
For bullied children in the U.S., the risk was greatest for anxiety. They were almost five times more likely to suffer from anxiety than children who were “only” maltreated.
In Britain, the risk was greatest for depression. Bullied British children were 70 percent more likely to be depressed than children who were maltreated.
The study has several limitations. Most notably, parents and children reported the incidents of maltreatment and bullying themselves. Such self-reports are not always reliable. Parents, in particular, might be disinclined to tell researchers that they have been physically or emotionally abusing their child.
Also, the confidence interval for the finding about the increased risk of anxiety among the bullied U.S. children was very wide (2.0 to 12.0), which makes that result less than robust.
Still, coupled with previous research on bullying, this study’s results have important implications for school officials and public health policymakers, say the study’s authors.
“Being bullied has similar and in some cases worse long-term adverse effects on young adults’ mental health than being maltreated,” Wolke and his co-authors write. “Governmental efforts have focused almost exclusively on public policy to address family maltreatment; much less attention and resources [have] been paid to bullying. … This imbalance requires attention.”
You can read the study in full on the Lancet Psychiatry website.