November 04, 2013

Childhood bullying and its impact upon adult health, wealth, and social behavior.

This is the latest in the series of (excellent) blog posts by my dissertation students. This is one by Rachel McDill about a recent publication from Dieter Wolke.

Wolke, D., Copeland, W. E., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013).  Impact of bullying in childhood on adult health, wealth, crime, and social outcomesPsychological Science, 24(10), 1958-1970.

This study looked at the links between experiences of childhood bullying and impact on adult life; specifically examining the effect of bullying roles (victim, bully-victim, bully) and duration of bullying on a range of outcomes in adulthood, including health, wealth, risky or illegal behaviour, and social outcomes. 

A total of 1273 participants took part in the present study, these individuals came from 3 cohorts of children originally recruited in 1993 from Western North Carolina whilst aged 9, 11 & 13 years old.  Participants were assessed annually until age 16 and subsequently followed up at ages 19, 21 and 24-26 years old.

At each childhood assessment (aged 9-16) children reported whether or not they had been bullied or teased, and whether they had bullied others within the 3 months prior to the assessment.  Children were then classified as victims only (never reporting having bullied others), bullies only (never reported that they had been bullied by others), bully-victims (reported that they had both bullied and been bullied by others), or not involved in bullying.  Children were classified as ‘chronic victims’ if they reported being bullied at more than one assessment.
Outcomes in young adulthood were assessed by interview, with the exception of risky or illegal behaviours, some of which were assessed by access to criminal records.

Bullying Role in Childhood and Adult Outcomes
Once adjusted to take account of childhood psychiatric problems and family hardship, results show that being a victim or bully-victim in childhood predicted poorer health, wealth and social relationships in adulthood (with the largest impairment being found in the bully-victim group).  Bullies were found not to be at increased risk of poorer adult outcomes than those not involved at all.  Involvement in bullying was not found to predict risky or illegal behaviours.

Chronicity of Peer Victimization and Adult Outcomes
When participants who had been chronically bullied as children (2 or more times throughout assessment) were compared to those who were neither bullies nor victims, it was found that the likelihood of having financial and social problems was higher in the chronically bullied.  When the chronically bullied were compared to those bullied no more than once, levels of social problems were significantly higher and a trend towards more financial problems was seen.

So, both bullying role and number of instances of bullying in childhood seem to impact in adulthood.  What’s particularly interesting about this study is that by controlling for psychiatric problems and family hardship, many of the links found in previous literature (such as those that suggest that victimisation is a marker for other psychological problems) were diminished yet still present, thereby strengthening the evidence for the direct effects found here.  It seems that there is some unique effect, unrelated to other childhood psychological issues, of being bullied which impacts significantly on adult functioning.

The types of adult problems observed in this study represent large costs to both the individual and society, therefore highlighting even further the need for intervention in cases of childhood bullying.  Bullying can have lasting negative effects; it is not the ‘harmless rite of passage’ it may seem to some.

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