There can be little question that the phenomenon of bullying has become a worldwide concern, drawing the attention of researchers, educators, policy makers, parents, and young people. After nearly 30 years of research, it is easy for researchers and educators to list the ill effects and negative consequences that go hand in hand with bullying. This brief article begins with a look at what we see as the short-term consequences of bullying before turning to the question of what happens over longer periods of time.
What are the Short-Term Outcomes of Bullying?
What Happens to Children Who Are Bullied?
- This list for victimization is extensive and bleak including anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, poor social self-competence, depression, psychosomatic symptoms, social withdrawal, school refusal, school absenteeism, poor academic performance, physical health complaints, running away from home, alcohol and drug use, and suicide (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
What Happens to Children Who Bully?
- Although there is some research linking bullying behaviour to seemingly positive social competencies, including being seen by the peer group to be powerful and popular (11) and showing high social intelligence (12). For the most part, however, bullying is much more commonly linked to difficulties.
- Those who bully have been characterized as angry, depressed, aggressive, hostile, and domineering individuals who show high levels of externalizing (acting-out) and hyperactive behaviours with little fondness for school (11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18) and high conflict within friendships (19). The risks for those students who are both bully and victim seem even greater (6).
Long-Term Effects of Bullying: Adults Looking Back on Childhood
Researchers have done a good job of describing the characteristics of bullies and victims and have tried to figure out what causes someone to bully or to be bullied and what short-term consequences result from these experiences. Researchers interested in adulthood have tried to understand the long-term effects of peer victimization by asking adults to recount school-age bullying experiences and looking to see whether these experiences can be connected to social and emotional adjustment.
- Memories of childhood teasing are associated with high rates of depression, social anxiety, pathological perfectionism, and greater neuroticism in adulthood (20,21,22).
- When you look at the content of how adults describe their childhood victimization experiences, it does appear that over time many victims report a reduction in their hurt feelings (for example, less unhappiness, decreased shame) (23).
- Yet, for those who consider the bullying to be extremely painful, the troubling feelings continue with reported long-term negative effects on both personality and attitudes. In short, childhood bullying is a highly memorable experience and recollections of these events show no evidence of forgetting (24).
Long-Term Effects of Bullying: Following Children Forward in Time
Researchers and educators believe that peer victimization adversely affects a person’s development. But, what we do not know much about at this point is what happens to those who bully and/or those who are victimized over the long term.
For those who are bullied...
- One researcher to address this question is Dan Olweus who followed a small group of his Norwegian sample (15 victims, 56 non-victims, all males; 1993) and found that being victimized in grades 6 and 9 could be linked to greater depression and lower self-esteem at 23 years of age.
For those who bully others...
- Olweus also documented a connection between bullying and later criminality showing that 60% of those who bullied in grades 6 and/or 9 had at least one criminal conviction by age 24; 35-40% had three or more convictions (as compared to a group of non-bullying boys).
- Another research group in England asked boys about whether they were bullies at age 14, then 18, and then again at age 32 (18 year span) (25). The findings showed that about one in every five boys (18%) who saw himself as “a bit of a bully” at age 14 continued to report being a bully at age 32. A noticeable proportion of these adult bullies at 32 years of age was highly aggressive (61%) and had been convicted of violence (20%).
The Stability of Bullying Roles
In our own work, we have been very interested in whether young people who bully or who are victimized continue to stay in these roles over time.
- Some researchers have found that in the school setting these behaviours (bullying and being victimized) are fairly stable across 1-4-year intervals (26, 27, 28, 29).
- Victim status has been observed to be particularly stable, even after switching to new classroom environment (30).
- Over an 8-year span from age 8 to age 16, 5% of students bullying at 8 were still bullying at 16, and 9% maintained their status as victims (31).
- Boys were much more likely to stay in their role as bully or victim than girls.
- In contrast, Olweus (9) found no relationship between being a victim in school (grades 6, 9) and being harassed or socially isolated at 23 years of age.
Olweus viewed instability in the victim role as encouraging, suggesting that maybe the wider adult social world provides an escape for adults who were victimized in school. Yet, there is a clear connection between being victimized in the workplace and reporting that you were bullied in childhood. For example, in one study over half (57%) of individuals who report being bullied at work also reported having been bullied as children (32).
In one of our recent studies, we were able to collect information from a group of grade 12 students who we had surveyed six years earlier when they were in grade 6. We had 83 students tell us about how frequently they bullied others at school as well as how frequently they were bullied. In addition, we collected peer reports, asking students in the same grade to confidentially identify students who bully and/or who are victimized at school.
- We were happy to see that in general, there was less bullying and victimization going on for these young people in grade 12 as compared to grade 6.
- When we looked at what students said about themselves, almost 2% of bullies in grade 6 continued to report that they bullied in grade 12.
- In contrast, 5% of the students who reported they were victimized in grade 6 still experienced victimization six years later.
When we considered reports from peers we saw that 3% of students continued to be seen as bullies and 2% of students continued to be viewed as victims.
- Seeing oneself (or being seen by others) as a bully in grade 6 was tied to being more outwardly aggressive in grade 12 whereas believing you had been victimized was tied to greater loneliness 6 years later.
- Although we were heartened to see that the stability in bullying and victimization was not extensive, we nevertheless see that those who persist in these roles are of concern.
What’s On Our “To-Do” List Next?
Well, counter to the notion that “children grow out of bullying”, our working assumption is that at least some school bullies move through life continuing to use aggressive strategies in romantic relationships, in the workplace and in other areas of their lives. In the case of victims, we would argue that there may be different pathways that people follow. For example, we expect that under the most extreme circumstances of school bullying, some who are victimized never truly recover and continue to have difficult and troubled lives well after they finish (or leave) school.
We think it is possible, however, that how victims fare will depend on how they see themselves and how they make sense of what happened to them. Stated simply, people who do not see themselves as a victim may be better adjusted in adulthood. In order to test out some of our thinking, we’re working on a study to keep following those same kids that we saw in grade 6 and grade 12 who are now young adults.
By tracking people forward in time, and being able to document connections between early experiences and adult outcomes, we think our research might well make a contribution to the planning of intervention and prevention programs.
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