Psychological effects of bullying in adolescence

Bullying is known cross-culturally as one of largest and most prominent psychosocial troubles adolescents face due to its entirely negative, damaging state (Sourander et al., 2007). A person is considered to be bullied when he or she is exposed to negative actions (such as physical or verbal harm, exclusion or the spreading of rumours) repeatedly over time, by one or more people considered of greater strength or power (McCabe, 2010). A single theory cannot be used to summarise the cause of bullying, as there are numerous reasons adolescents are predisposed to it, however a number of protective factors have been identified which have been proven to decrease the likelihood that children will bully or be bullied (Orpinas & Horne, 2006). With up to a quarter of adolescents reporting victimisation, the long term psychological effects must be considered (Lane, 1992; Smith et al, 1999). Using current literature, this essay aims to show that bullied adolescents are more likely to experience significant mental health problems in adulthood. To support this thesis, Sourander et al.’s 2007 study, which observed the mental health of bullied and victimised males in adolescence and then adulthood, will be examined, as well as a study conducted by Hawker and Boulton (2000) which provides a literature analysis of studies based on the long-term psychological effects of bullying, conducted in a 19 year period.

It is a common belief that children who are bullied are often victimised due to pre-existing psychological problems, however, a Korean study, which followed grade 8 students bullying and victimisation habits for 10 months, showed that troubled behaviour is a consequence, rather than the reason for peer victimisation (Kim, et al., 2006).

Sourander et al.’s (2007) study examined the predictive associations between the victimisation of 8 year olds, and their psychiatric diagnoses 10 to 15 years later. In this study, 2540 Finnish males born in 1981 were evaluated on their bullying or victimisation tendencies as 8 year olds, through reports from teachers, parents and the children themselves. The boys were tested for any psychiatric symptoms they may have had previously using a Rutter scale, as this was obviously a confounding variable (Rutter, 1970). The participants were then tested 10-15 years later through a compulsory military call up, and their mental health was diagnosed using the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision (ICD-10). This study concluded that frequent peer victimisation at 8 years of age was a good predictor of the development of anxiety disorders in adulthood. It also found that frequent bullying predicted a greater chance of developing antisocial personality disorders, and that bully-victims have a greater chance of developing anxiety and antisocial personality disorders (Sourander et al., 2007). Concurrently, Mahli et al.’s 2002 study showed that significantly more bullied subjects are diagnosed with lifetime social phobia, as well as agoraphobia. It was found that bullying in adolescence is strongly related to both high levels of comorbid anxiety, and higher levels of general anxiety symptoms (Mahli et al., 2002). Thus, the studies conducted by Sourander et al. and Mahli et al. supports the thesis that bullied adolescents are more likely to experience mental health problems in adulthood.

Although Sourander et al.’s study examined only Finnish males, the strengths of the study, such as its large sample size, age specificity and format, give cause to believe that the results extend further into cultures outside of Finland. This study is effective at interpreting the different effect different roles in the bullying phenomena has (bully, victim or both) and the types of disorders that could be attributed to these. It clarifies the fact that children who are victimised, feel anxious and unhappy in the short-term, which appears to remain an integral part of their makeup if the bullying continues, so much so, that they have a greater risk of developing severe anxiety disorders and depression 10- 15 years later. Likewise children who bully appear more isolated and aggressive in adolescence (Roth, 2002). This appears to increase in the transition into adulthood, and can transform into antisocial personality disorders later in life (Sourander et al. 2007). This shows that victims of bullying appear to be unable to correct their risk factors over the 10-15 year period of time before the follow up study was conducted, and so must be of great effect to the person. The fact that children who were both bullied and victimised in adolescence had the greater psychological damage, implies that the more involved one is in the bullying phenomena, the more likely they are to have mental health problems later in life. Other studies, such as Hawker and Boulton’s (2000) study support this.

Hawker and Boulton’s study presents a review of the literature, based on the long-term effects of bullying, between the years 1978 and 1997. It provides a meta-analytic review of cross-sectional studies regarding the relationship between bullying and psychosocial maladjustment that was taken from a variety of different populations varying in age, country and gender. The mean effect sizes were calculated for the connection between bullying and different forms of maladjustment, such as loneliness, anxiety and depression. The results showed that victimisation was most strongly associated with depression, and least strongly related to anxiety. Results from cross-sectional studies suggest that victims of peer aggression are more prone to having negative thoughts about themselves and lower self esteem than non-victimised children (Hawker and Boulton; 2000). Similarly to this study, analyses of the relationships between bulling in school life and depression in early adulthood both show that children who are bullied develop more depressive symptoms than those who are not. (Kumpulainen & Rasanen (2000); Sourander et al. (2007))

There are two prominent strengths of the Hawker and Boulton study: the diversity and of the different studies that have been carried out which used various methods and a range of population samples, and the sheer amount of data that was used. As this study examined numerous different populations, risk and protective factors were able to be identified.

Some risk/protective factors, such as parental influence and social network appear to reduce the negative effects of bullying. The greater the parental influence, and the stronger the social network adolescents have, the less chance they have of being greatly affected by bullying. Similarly, adolescents who have a lower academic achievement, or are male, have a greater risk of being bullied (Orpinas & Horne, 2006). Peer rejection and peer acceptance are both possible risk/protective factors. Research shows that relationships between peers in adolescence are an extremely important medium for psychological growth and emotional, social and cognitive development (Hay, Payne &Chadwick, 2004). Bullied adolescents tend to struggle with these relations in school and are seen as “unpopular”, making it more difficult for them to make friends due to their poor self esteem. These bullied adolescents are also more likely to develop depression in later life (Young and Sweeting, 2004). Negative quality of friendships is another risk/protective factor of bullying in adolescents. It was found that if an adolescent is bullied, as well having as negative interactions (for example, peer pressure or ostracism) with a “best friend”, the adolescent would experience more social anxiety and depressive symptoms both immediately and in the long term.

In conclusion, the evidence suggests that bullying in adolescence is strongly related to mental health problems in adulthood. The aggregated effects show that reports of distress are not insignificant. The mental health issues that stem from bullying in adolescence cannot be explained by simple variance in the data, and can thus no longer be ignored. Sourander et al’s research shows that children who are bullied are more likely to experience anxiety disorders, those who bully are more likely to experience antisocial disorders, and those who both bully and are victimised tend to suffer from both of these disorders later in life. Hawker and Boulton’s study concluded much the same as Sourander et al. This study showed that depression was a more common mental disorder associated with victimisation than anxiety, but that both do occur. Protective and risk factors, such as family relations and social network, as well as gender and friend relationships, appear to have a great influence on whether or not a child will be bullied, and if psychological damage will be caused if bullying does occur. Thus, the evidence suggests a very strong link between bullying and mental health problems in adulthood. Future research should aim to develop methodologies which reduce the negative effects of bullying, by focusing on studying longitudinally the effectiveness of protective factors and how to develop these in adolescence.