The Long-Term Effects of Bullying

Ensure every student feels safe at school and at home.

October 20, 2013
Kathleen Costanza
Common Sense Education Blogger

CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Research & Studies, Students

For kids who are bullied, every school day can be a nightmare. Their entire educational experiences are often altered, as school no longer feels safe. While other kids are playing and learning, victims of bullying are likely to experience psychosomatic symptoms like headaches, sleeping problems, and abdominal pain, according to new research.

As much as we’d like to believe these side effects of bullying end after kids make it through school and graduate, research is uncovering evidence that the effects of bullying shape victims throughout their lives.

A 2013 study published in Psychological Science tracked the long-term ramifications of bulling on a group of 1,420 students, which included both victims and perpetrators. The study found both victims and bully-victims (those who are victims and also bully) were at higher risk of poor health, job problems, debt, lower educational attainment, domestic violence, and poorer quality relationships with parents and friends. These outcomes held even after controlling for other factors that also elevate risks for poor outcomes, such as poverty and childhood psychiatric disorders.

Being a bully-victim had the strongest negative effects. Being a “pure” bully didn’t carry long-term ramifications.

“Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives. Interventions in childhood are likely to reduce long-term health and social costs,” wrote the studies’ authors.

Although the study doesn’t address cyberbullying, other research has found it can be equally as harmful and can be associated with “substance use, violent behavior, unsafe sexual behavior and suicidal behavior.”

Why exactly does bullying carry harmful effects over a lifetime? The study doesn’t offer a direct answer, but it does present many possibilities, mostly rooted in a physiological responses to stress. Kids who are bullied may become hyperalert and hypervigilant in response to threatening situations because their stress response is altered by the bullying experience. They may fly off the handle more easily, or be more fearful of what others see as normal situations. This altered stress reaction can also weaken the immune system and make people more susceptible to diseases. Bullying can also affect school performance, with long-term consequences for education attainment, which in turn is linked to better jobs. Emily Bazelon, bullying expert and author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” spoke to one of the study’s authors, William E. Copeland, a once-skeptic who was shocked by the results of his own research.

“Consider me a reluctant convert, but I’m starting to view bullying the same way I do abuse in the home,” Copeland told Bazelon in an article at Slate. “I honestly think the effects we’re observing here are just as potent. And that’s definitely not the way American researchers look at things.”

All the research and data echo the heartbreaking stories in The Boston Globe’s piece about former victims, part of their series on bullying. Over and over, emotional troubles and financial hardships linger in the victims’ lives. One former victim, a 29-year old man named Anthony Testaverde, dreamed of career in technology or as an engineer but never went to college for fear of being bullied.

“A part of my life has been robbed,’’ Testaverde told the Globe. “It’s like the show ‘Lost,’ where there are two storylines — one on the island, and one if the plane never crashed. Sometimes I think about what would have happened, if I hadn’t been as depressed, if I could have taken more risks.’’

The CDC found one in five kids experience bullying, and even considers it a public health issue. If we consider those numbers on a large scale, that’s one-fifth of students whose paths are at risk to be diverted, whose potential may never be fully reached because bullying affected them on such a deep level at such a young age.

Across the board, experts agree that prevention is a key to curbing bullying. We have resources to kick-start prevention in your classroom. Our Cyberbullying Toolkit is packed with lessons and information to ensure every student is safe at school, and that fewer futures will be hindered by bullying.