The lasting effects of bullying

Students attend a special screening in 2012 of the movie "Bully." Researchers who followed children from their middle-school years into early adulthood found bullying victims were far more likely to wind up with social, financial and emotional troubles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / August 18, 2013)

Bullying doesn’t end in the school yard, but casts a shadow across adulthood, when victims are far more likely to have emotional, behavioral, financial and health problems, a new study suggests.

Those who were both victim and perpetrator as schoolchildren fared the worst as adults: they were more than six times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness or psychiatric disorder, and to smoke regularly, according to the study published Monday in the journal Psychological Science.

The poor results for victims and victim-perpetrators prevailed even when such factors as family hardship and childhood psychiatric disorders were statistically controlled.

Victim-perpetrators are “the most socially defeated because they actually do try to fight back but they’re unsuccessful,” said Dieter Wolke, a University of Warwick psychologist and lead author of the study.

Bullies tended to enter adulthood with similar problems as their victims, but few of those adult outcomes were strongly correlated with bullying itself, the study found. Those correlations tended to wash out once other factors were taken into account, said Wolke. Bullies tended to engage in more risky behavior and to have criminal records.

The result for bullies is supported by previous work, which suggests they are strong and healthy, competent in emotional recognition and adept at manipulating others. Victims aside, bullies tend to have more acquaintances and social status, previous studies have shown.

“If you look at it evolutionarily, it’s a strategy for getting access to resources,” Wolke said of bullying. “And it gets stronger in adolescence because another resource is, for example, having a relationship with someone of the opposite sex.”

Previous work by the Duke-Warwick team showed bullies and bully-victims tended to come from families with harsh parenting, while victims tended to have overprotective “helicopter parents.”

“All children need some conflict sometime,” Wolke said. “But that’s usually between friends and you argue and come to a solution. Bullying is different because it’s systematic abuse by someone who is stronger and it’s done repeatedly.”

More than a third of those who had been bullied were chronic victims, according to the study, which also found that the more subjects were bullied, the more likely they were to have social problems.

The study did not address why bully victims turned that behavior on others, nor which came first. But the authors and previous studies suggest that victims resort to bullying behavior when they are from deprived families, have poor emotional regulation or have mental health problems, among them poor coping strategies for stress.

The study looked at data collected from 1,420 children beginning in 1992, when they were 9 to 13 years old, and continuing until they were in their early 20s. All were participants in the broader Great Smoky Mountains Study of children in the Appalachian region, conducted through Duke University’s medical school. The study includes more Native Americans and fewer African Americans than the general populaton, although reported levels of bullying and victimization closely matched those of the wider population.