As anyone who has ever been the target of a bully knows, being picked on or harassed is a pretty traumatic experience. And it’s no surprise research shows that kids who are bullied have higher rates of depression and anxiety.
But a new study puts the damage in perspective in an alarming new way. Kids who are taunted or excluded by their peers suffer more long-term emotional fallout in adulthood than do kids who were abused by grown-ups.
The study looked at previous data covering more than 5,000 parents and kids from two studies going back to the early 1990s. The data included interviews with parents about their own mistreatment of their kids, as well as reports from kids about their experiences being bullied by other children.
The results: adults who were bullied in childhood were approximately five times more likely to have anxiety, and twice as likely to describe themselves as depressed, compared to kids who were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused or neglected by adults when they were young.
Bullying survivors were also more likely to contemplate suicide and take on self-harming behaviors, according to the study.
“It might be a surprise that bullying has such a strong effect, but for kids, fitting in with classmates is extremely important,” Dieter Wolke, lead author of the study and professor of developmental psychology and individual differences at the University of Warwick in the U.K., tells Yahoo Parenting.
“Kids want to be accepted and be a part of their peer group, and being excluded or singled out is very difficult and can have lasting damage,” says Wolke. The study was published in The Lancet Psychiatry and presented Thursday at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting.
In the study, bullying is defined as repetitive aggressive physical or verbal abuse from another child or a group of children. Being socially excluded also qualified as bullying behavior. “It’s important to distinguish repeated or systematic bullying from a one-time event or conflict,” says Wolke.
“The study should serve as a wake-up call that bullying can have major consequences,” Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s likely that bullying influences the way a child thinks about himself, other people, and the world in general, and those perceptions can make a difference through adulthood.”
Bullying has been in the spotlight lately, and school districts are increasingly cracking down on bullying behavior and teaching kids about the consequences singling out or excluding their classmates.
But many adults still view schoolyard taunts and harassment as a part of growing up. The new study makes it clear why bulling can’t be blown off — or left up to individual school districts to handle.
“The effects of bullying are too harmful to leave to school districts, especially now that cyberbullying makes it a 24-hour problem,” says Wolke. Governments should get more involved in anti-bullying efforts and sharing information on stopping bullying with parents, he suggests.
“Government agencies have placed most of their efforts into preventing child maltreatment in the home,” says Morin. “This study highlights the importance of placing more emphasis on bullying.”