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Far from being harmless, the effects of bullying last long into adulthood

head_4_2009.jpgA new study has shown that serious illness, struggling to hold down a regular job and poor social relationships are just some of the adverse outcomes in adulthood faced by those exposed to bullying in childhood.

It has long been acknowledged that bullying at a young age presents a problem for schools, parents and public policy makers alike. Though children spend more time with their peers than their parents, there is relatively little work done on understanding the impact of these interactions on their life beyond school.

The results of this research, published in Psychological Science, highlight the extent of which the risk of health, wealth and social problems is heightened by exposure to bullying; and in doing so is the first study to look into the effects beyond just health.

Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick and Dr William E. Copeland of Duke University Medical Center led the team, looking beyond the study of victims and investigating the impact on all those effected; the victims, the bullies themselves, and those who fall into both categories; ‘bully-victims’.

Professor Wolke said, “We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up. We need to change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the individual and the country as a whole; the effects are long-lasting and significant.”

The ‘bully-victims’ presented the most significant health risk for adulthood, being over six times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly or develop a psychiatric disorder.

The results show that bully-victims are perhaps the most vulnerable group of all. This group may turn to bullying after being victims of bullying themselves as they lack the emotional regulation, or the support, required to cope with it.

Professor Wolke added, “In the case of bully-victims, it shows how bullying can spread when left untreated. Some interventions are already available in schools but new tools are needed to help health professionals to identify, monitor and deal with the ill-effects of bullying. The challenge we face now is committing the time and resource to these interventions to try and put an end to bullying.”

All of the groups were more than twice as likely to have difficulty in keeping a job, or commit to saving, and as such displayed a higher propensity for being impoverished in young adulthood.

However, very few ill effects of being the bully were found in the study. When accounting for the influence of childhood psychiatric problems and family hardships, which were prevalent in the bullies, it showed that the act of bullying itself didn’t have a negative impact upon adulthood.

“Bullies appear to be children with a prevailing antisocial tendency who know how to get under the skin of others, with bully-victims taking the role of their helpers,” explained Professor Wolke. "It is important to finds ways of removing the need for these children to bully others and in doing so; protect the many children suffering at the hand of bullies as they are the ones who are hindered later in life."

Though there was no real difference in the likelihood of being married or having children, all groups showed signs of having difficulty forming social relationships, particularly when it came to maintaining long term friendships or good ties with parents in adulthood.

The research assessed 1,420 participants four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16 years and adult outcomes between 24-26 years of age.

Notes to editors

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK and the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation in the USA. Please see the full article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

Further information

For further information or to arrange interviews with Professor Wolke, contact Luke Harrison, Communications Manager on +44 (0)2476 574255/150483, m: +44(0)7920 531221 or

Useful Links

Psychology at Warwick

Warwick Medical School

Psychological Science paper

Professor Wolke's interview with The Conversation