Bullying is something that most people have experienced throughout their school years and it is such a common occurrence, that it has become to be considered a rite of passage that all children must go through. As it turns out, things are a lot more serious than it was previously thought, because it has been shown that bullying can cause permanent mental damage to those subjected to it.
A study was published in The Lancet Psychiatry that assesses the long-term effects of bullying, being the first to consider it as a cause, and not only as a factor contributing to possible consequences. The study was lead by Dieter Wolke, Professor of Psychology at the University of Warwick.
In this study the two terms, “maltreatment” and “bullying”, were clearly defined, so as to avoid future confusion. And so, “maltreatment” was described as physical, emotional or sexual abuse or “maladaptive parenting”, such as hitting and shouting. As opposed to this, “bullying” represents the continuous abusive behavior conducted by peers at least once a week, that consists of social exclusion firstly and that manifests itself by repeated actions ranging from name-calling to physical and even sexual abuse.
Since the long-term effects of maltreatment have been extensively studied by numerous previous researchers, Professor Wolke wanted to focus on bullying. So in his study, he evaluated 4,026 cases of children enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in the United Kingdom and 1,420 cases of children taking part in the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the United States. Then he compared the results.
In the UK study, researchers evaluated whether children had been maltreated between the ages of 8 and 8,6, taking into account parent reports. Then, interviews were conducted with the children themselves, so that they can relate if and how they had been bullied at ages 8, 10 and 13.
In the US study, research was based on annual interviews conducted with both children and parents, for participants between the ages of 9 and 16 and then supplemented with assessment for depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal tendencies of study participants when they reached the ages of 18 to 25.
The results revealed that 30% of children in the UK study and 16 % in the US study reported bullying. Additionally, 7 % of UK participants and 10% of US participants reported both bullying and maltreatment.
The UK study concluded that children who had experienced bullying only were 1.6 times more prone to mental health issues ranging from depression up to suicidal tendencies then those who had experienced both bullying and maltreatment.
The US study came to similar conclusions. Thus, children who had experienced maltreatment only were deemed four times more likely to get depression in the first part of adulthood then were children who had not experienced either maltreatment or abuse.
As for the children who had experienced bullying only, it seemed that they were four times more prone to mental health problems than children who had been maltreated only.
“Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up; it has serious long-term consequences,” explained Professor Wolke. He believes that the first step towards rectifying the problem is to put an end to the public opinion that bullying is something normal.
He further explains that there is a great difference between what children experience when abused by parents or adults in general, and when the aggression comes from their peers. The victims of bullying usually have problem integrating in society and even holding a job, because of school-time traumas.
The issue of bullying has become more and more complex in the last years. If during school hours, victims can undergo verbal and physical abuse, the harassment is now able to continue outside this time frame, even reach permanent status, through the means of social media. Cyber-bullying has become an extremely serious matter of the social media age.
And with aggression being waged upon the victims both at school and on the internet, which is perceived as being able to follow them everywhere, the stress is far greater than it used to be 5 or 10 years ago. This continuous stress can lead to other medical issues, including digestive problems such as ulcers, and dermatological problems, such as rashes.
Numerous documentaries and campaigns have been made in the last few years, in order to raise awareness to this enormous problem. But now, with science on their side, the time has come to take bullying for the grave public issue that it is.
And it seems that change has started to be observed. For instance, two 12th grade Canadian students from Nova Scotia were widely applauded for taking a stand when they saw a 9th-gradder being bullied for wearing pink. They bought a lot of discount store pink T-shirts and distributed them among students and so, the next day, the school was filled with people wearing pink. Strength in numbers seemed to be the solution in this case.
But while there is progress, this matter has yet to receive its rightful course of action. “If someone’s maltreated, we tend to validate them, to tell them that it’s not their fault,” explained William Copeland, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, involved in the US study. “With bullying, it’s sometimes the case that the response is a lot less supportive, more of a shrug.”
Therefore, the fact that bullying can cause permanent mental damage should become common knowledge, so that people stop treating it like a joke and become aware of its true long-term consequences.
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