“The negative social, physical and mental health effects of childhood bullying are still evident nearly 40 years later, according to research by British psychiatrists.
In the first study of its kind to look at the effects of childhood bullying beyond early adulthood, the researchers said its impact is “persistent and pervasive”, with people who were bullied when young more likely to have poorer physical and psychological health and poorer cognitive functioning at age 50.
The effects of bullying are still visible nearly four decades later … with health, social and economic consequences lasting well into adulthood,” said Ryu Takizawa, who led the study at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.
The findings, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry on Friday, come from the British National Child Development Study which includes data on all children born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week in 1958.
It included 7,771 children whose parents gave information on their child’s exposure to bullying when they were aged 7 and 11. The children were then followed up until they reached 50.
Bullying is characterized by repeated hurtful actions by children of a similar age, where the victim finds it difficult to defend themselves.
More than a quarter of children in the study – 28 percent – had been bullied occasionally, and 15 percent were bullied frequently – rates that the researchers said were similar to the situation in Britain today.
The study, which adjusted for other factors such as childhood IQ, emotional and behavioral problems and low parental involvement, found people who were frequently bullied in childhood were at an increased risk of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Victims of bullying were also more likely to have lower educational levels, less likely to be in a relationship and more likely to report lower quality of life. Men who had been bullied were also more likely to be unemployed and earn less.”
This study adds to the growing body of evidence that repeated harmful/adverse experiences in childhood are likely to lead to long-lasting negative social, physical and mental health effects. I don’t think anyone seriously argues in favour of children being bullied, but I think it’s reasonable to say that there is a general belief in society that bullying is a relatively harmless and inevitable part of growing up, and that therefore we shouldn’t make too much fuss over it. This study not only weakens that argument significantly, but also, I would argue, the argument in favour of corporal punishment or smacking by parents (which has already been significantly weakened over the last several years).
The article implies that in the study bullying was defined somewhat narrowly as “hurtful actions by children of a similar age, where the victim finds it difficult to defend themselves“. The more general definition of bullying is: “to use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.” I don’t think anyone would argue that this isn’t also an accurate definition of parents who smack their children or use aggression (e.g. shouting or threats) to get their children to comply. All parents have superior strength to and immense influence over their children, and those who smack, shout or threaten their children exploit that in order to force their children to obey.
Having myself been a victim of repeated corporal punishment and periods of school bullying I know that both experiences produced similar fear, stress and anxiety responses in my mind and body. In other words my brain reacted in fundamentally the same way when I was being threatened by a kid my age in school as it did when I was being smacked or shouted-at at home. The part of the brain that produces fear, that ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, is blind; it can’t know whether what’s frightening the life out of you is the sight of your dad taking off his belt or the sight of some kid winding up to hit you. All it knows is that you are in immediate physical danger and need to have your brain flooded with fear in order to prompt you to flee from it.
School bullying isn’t always violent, of course, but then neither is harmful parenting. Both can involve humiliation or verbal abuse and no actual violence, but being repeatedly subjected to such experiences can often be just as psychologically harmful as violence – as I’m sure many school girls and abused spouses would no doubt testify. Verbal abuse can certainly feel as harmful as violence and, as at least one study has suggested, may actually be as harmful.
My own subjective experiences do not consitute evidence, but I mention them only because I know they are supported by a body of scientific study and research on how the environments we are raised in and the experiences we have in them (i.e. how our parents treat us) affect the development of our brains, and subsequently the quality of our adult lives.
The publication and mainstream exposure of this long-term study on the effects of school bullying is great because it might just make people ponder the similarities between school bullying and corporal punishment. It should help to convince many more that smacking and aggression as a parenting technique is as morally unacceptable as bullying at school – and just as harmful.
Like I said, no one argues for children to be bullied, but people do argue for children to be smacked or ‘disciplined’. Hopefully this new evidence will further expose the irrationality of the belief in the virtue of violence in raising children.