It's no secret that the longer a person is exposed to situations that are harmful to her health, the worse the outcomes could be—like living with a heavy smoker or growing up in a home with lead paint. And according to new research from Boston Children's Hospital, bullying should be added to the list of experiences that take a greater toll on health the longer a child is exposed to it.
A new study in the journal Pediatrics shows that children who undergo bullying over a long course of time have worse mental and physical health—including showing more symptoms of depression and a lower sense of self-worth—compared with kids who are being bullied for the first time, were only bullied in the past or those who have never been bullied at all.
While much has been done to prove the negative consequences of bullying, this is the first study to look at its compounding effects over many years.
The study followed 4,297 students from fifth to tenth grade, who were periodically asked about their experiences with bullying, as well as their mental and physical health. Based on their answers, the students' bullying histories were divided into four groups: those who had never experienced bullying, those who experienced it in the past only, those who were experiencing it in the present only or those who had experienced it in both the past and present.
The health of the students who said they had been bullied in the past and were still being targeted was significantly worse than others, especially those who had never been bullied. For example, of the students who said they've never been bullied, only 6.5 percent had very poor mental health.
That number jumped to 12 percent among children who had been bullied in the past, pushed ahead to 30.7 percent for kids currently experiencing bullying and skyrocketed to 44.6 percent for the kids who had been continually bullied for years. Children who experienced chronic bullying also were more likely to have problems with physical activities like walking, running or participating in sports.
"Our research shows that long-term bullying has a serious impact on a person's overall health, and its negative effects can accumulate and worsen with time," says first author Laura Bogart, PhD, a social psychologist at Boston Children's Hospital. "It supports the idea that we need more bullying intervention programs, because the sooner we stop a child's bullying, the less likely it is to have a lasting, damaging effect on her health down the road."
If you are worried your child may be experiencing bullying but aren't sure, some signs to look out for are unexplained bruises, cuts and/or scratches, withdrawn behavior or other symptoms of depression.
Children who identify as gay or lesbian, are overweight or have a known health problem are more likely to be targeted by bullies, so parents, teachers and other adults should always be on the watch for any possible bullying directed at children with these traits.
And while knowing the signs and cycles of bullying are important, Bogart believes there is still much work to be done to make anti-bullying efforts more effective.
"There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addressing bullying," she says. "If we closely study bullying interventions to fully understand what works and why, we could better supply teachers, parents and clinicians with anti-bullying best-practices that are proven to be successful. It could make a real difference in lessening the damage this serious problem causes for thousands of kids nationwide."
Boston Children's researchers Mark Schuster, MD, PhD, David Klein, MS, and Elizabeth Schink, BA, also contributed to the findings in this report.