Bullied children and kids who bully others have more health problems when they grow up than kids who aren't part of the bullying cycle, a study finds. They're also more likely to have financial problems, including difficulty keeping a job.
The findings run counter to a still-widespread notion that bullying is a childhood rite of passage with little lasting harm, the researchers say.
"These kids are continuing to have significant problems in their lives, years after the bullying has stopped," says William Copeland, an associate professor at Duke University School of Medicine and a co-author of the study, which was published in Psychological Science. "It really is a significant public health concern."
Those health problems included serious long-term issues like obesity, diabetes, cancer, disability and severe asthma.
Researchers tested the health of 1,273 children ages 9 to 13 in western North Carolina, starting back in 1993. Participants were assessed annually until age 16, and then at 19, 21, and 24 to 26 years old. Parents were also asked whether their child had been involved in bullying.
About one-quarter of the children said they had been bullied. Another 8 percent said they had bullied others. And 6 percent said they had been on both the sending and receiving end.
Victims of bullying were more likely to have problems as adults, and were more likely to smoke, use marijuana, or consider themselves to be in poor health.
Former bullies were not doing so great, either.
But it was the bullying targets who fared worst, being far more likely to have health problems, financial or job issues, and poor relationships with family and friends. They were six times more likely to have a serious illness like cancer or diabetes, six times as likely to smoke, and four times as likely to have been charged with a felony.
"What we saw for them was this really pervasive pattern where they were impaired across a lot of areas," Copeland tells Shots.
OK, you think, but the bullies are more likely to come from unstable families with financial issues, and thus are more likely to have problems. That's true, Copeland says. But when he and his colleagues adjusted their data to account for the children's family situation, they found that it did, in fact, account for a lot of the bullies' problems as adults.
But it didn't account for the travails of the bullied who then victimized others. "This is not a very effective coping mechanism," Copeland says. And thus, he says, it's not a surprise that they would have a hard time coping with the challenges of adult life.
He and his colleagues had previously shown that people who were involved in bullying as children have more mental health problems as adults. Now they're going to look deeper into the question of physical health problems, using biomarkers like the stress hormone cortisol to get a clearer picture of the physical cost of childhood aggression.
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