In our second ESRC-sponsored Ask The Expert seminar of the year, Professor Louise Arseneault of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at King’s College London presented her research on the impact of being bullied in childhood on individuals throughout their lives.
Bullying, defined as repeated abuse between peers of similar age, occurs due to an imbalance of power between the parties involved which renders the victims unable defend themselves. In our seminar, Professor Arseneault explored the various effects which being bullied at a young age can have on life at school, such adversity and adjustment difficulties, as well as the life-long impacts on mental and physical health.
Bullying is a common occurrence among children and adolescents, close to one in four youths report being bullied at some point in their lives. Bullying can be chronic and widespread in a variety of environments such as at home between siblings, within sports teams between peers, and in schools between pupils. Furthermore, bullying behaviour is no longer associated exclusively with historic forms such as verbal and physical abuse; technological advancements have transformed cyber space into a new medium for constant bullying and harassment.
Professor Arseneault briefly discussed a controversial line of research which attempts to identify the factors which increase the likelihood of becoming a victim of bullying than others. Traditional research tends to perceive bullying as a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ issue or focus solely on the rationale of the perpetrators. Studies have shown that being young, being a boy, or even already showing some signs of mental illness could predispose children to be targeted. Characteristics associated with the school environment, such as the number of pupils eligible to receive free school meals and school overcrowding, and the role of families, like abuse and neglect and a lack of supervision and involvement, could also contribute to the risk of being bullied. Professor Arseneault stressed that focusing on such factors is beneficial to research as it makes empirical studies more robust, but it is also valuable to policy-makers who wish to tackle and prevent bullying.
Professor Arseneault’s research studies a cohort of twins in the United Kingdom, and finds that bullied between the ages of 5 and 7 is associated with adjustment problems when children were seven years old, such as lower levels of pro-social behaviour and diminished happiness at school. Associations with symptoms of mental health problems are also present and manifested as higher levels of emotional problems. Bullied girls also exhibited behavioural problems. These effects persist even after accounting for prior mental health problems and factors associated with the risk of being bullied, at age 5 before any bullying occurred. Following the same group of twins also showed that bullied children were almost four times more likely to self-harm at the age of twelve.
The impact of bullying on the likelihood of experiencing emotional problems is also supported by studying 114 pairs of identical twins in the UK. This methodology automatically controls for family-wide factors such as genetics and the home environment, concluding that the bullied twin manifested higher levels of emotional problems than the twin who was not bullied. These results have been replicated for a cohort of twins in the United States.
Additionally, Professor Arseneault has studied the effect bullying can have on outcomes at adulthood, by looking at the 1958 birth cohort in the UK. The study assesses whether children were bullied at ages 11 and 16 by questioning their parents. The research showed that bullying has a persistent effect throughout the victim’s life; at 23 years old, young adults who were occasionally or frequently bullied show higher levels of psychological distress, such feeling isolated, when compared to those who were never bullied; this effect was more severe for women. This outcome is also present at age 50 (39 years after bullying occurred), however the gender difference disappears. The study also highlights the impact on psychiatric problems at age 45: children who were frequently bullied were overrepresented amongst respondents who had depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts or suicidal attempts. Professor Arseneault highlighted that alcohol dependence was one of the few outcomes studied which seemed not to be affected by an individual experiencing bullying.
Bullying also affects socio-economic outcomes in adulthood: children who were occasionally or frequently bullied were more likely to achieve no academic qualifications. Victims are also underrepresented amongst adults who have been awarded higher degrees as being bullied at school may discourage kids from pursuing education any further than mandated by the state. 50-year-olds who were frequently bullied in childhood were at higher risk to be living without a spouse or a partner, were less likely to have met up with a friend in the past two weeks, and were less likely to perceive that they had support if they were sick.
Professor Arseneault’s research also explores the links between being bullied and physical health in adulthood. The study finds that, at age 45, children who were frequently bullied exhibit higher levels of two separate markers of inflammation, CRP and Fibrinogen (which are associated with an increased risk of heart diseases), even when individual adult lifestyle was accounted for. Additionally, being bullied in childhood is associated with an increased risk of obesity in women, which is a shared concern among the public and health professionals alike.
Bullying is not only an issue for the individuals who experience it; it can also have an impact on the health system as children who were bullied were more likely to use mental health services in adulthood. In concluding remarks, Professor Arseneault stressed the need to support children who get bullied, as well as continue to focus on anti-bullying policies in British schools.
Click here to watch the recording of the event and Q&A
Building on from the success of Chalk + Talk, the SMF Ask the Expert series brings the best policy output from the world of academia into the heart of Westminster.
This series of events is aligned with current government consultations and parliamentary inquiries, giving policymakers the opportunity to engage with experts in those policy areas.
To suggest a subject for a future Ask The Expert event, please contact the SMF’s events officer Hannah Murphy via firstname.lastname@example.org.