The longitudinal British study checked in with 8,000 families across 40 years to trace the trajectory of a bullied child.
What doesn't kill us only makes us stronger, right? Well, not when it comes to bullying.
Some may still consider bullying a harmless part of growing up, but mounting evidence suggests that the adverse effects of being bullied aren't something kids can just shake off. The psychological and physical tolls, like anxiety and depression, can follow a person into early adulthood.
In fact, the damage doesn't stop there, a British study published this week in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests. It actually lasts well into the adults' 40s and 50s.
"Midlife ... is an important stage in life because that sets in place the process of aging," says Louise Arseneault, a developmental psychologist at King's College London and the study's senior author. "At age 50, if you have physical [and] mental health problems, it could be downhill from here."
And health isn't the only thing to worry about. Chronic bullying's effect on a person's socioeconomic status, social life and even cognitive function can persist decades later, too, Arseneault's research suggests.
The study began with a national survey of nearly 18,000 children in England, Scotland and Wales who were born during a single week in 1958. Their parents were interviewed twice — once when the kids turned 7, and again when they turned 11 — about how often the children were bullied. Researchers also noted the children's IQ score at the time and checked reports from teachers for any behavioral problems indicative of anxiety or depression in the kids.
Then, for four decades, they checked in periodically with roughly 8,000 of those children, recording their health, socioeconomic status and social well-being at ages 23, 45 and again at 50.
More than 40 percent of the children were reported as having been occasionally or frequently bullied at age 7 and 11 — not too far from today's estimates in the U.S., where up to 50 percent of kids say they've been bullied at least once within a month.
Researchers found that at age 50, those who'd been bullied – particularly those who were repeatedly bullied — reported somewhat poorer physical health than those who hadn't been, and also had an increased incidence of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. They also had lower education attainment; memory tests indicated that they tended, as a group, to have somewhat poorer cognitive function than those who weren't bullied.
The study accounted for other factors that might have confounded the results, Arseneault says, such as poverty during childhood, family conflict and evidence of physical and sexual abuse. Though the study couldn't definitively say the bullying caused the long-lasting problems, Arseneault says, other studies and statistical tests suggest the association is more than coincidental.
"In terms of relationship, they seem to be less likely to live with a partner, and to have friends who they can speak to or rely on if they're sick," Arseneault tells Shots. "As they get older, you would think that maybe they would grow out of it — but it's not what we're showing."
The study is impressive, says William Copeland, a clinical psychologist and epidemiologist at Duke University, who wasn't involved in the British research but has done work on the long-term effects of bullying. "This is the longest follow-up study we have of victims of bullying to date," he says.
People need to shift their thinking on bullying, Copeland says, from considering it a "harmless rite of passage" to "this kind of critical childhood experience that can really change one's trajectory for decades and decades."
Bullying is somewhat different today from what it was in the '60s — cyberbullying on the Internet has extended its reach. Copeland says the concept remains the same: singling out a weaker person as the target for repeated intentional harm. It's just that the abuse is no longer confined to schools and playgrounds, he says. It can happen in the no-longer-safe haven of a child's home.
Victims need some place where they can get away from the abuse and feel safe, Copeland tells Shots. "As you lose that, as you're getting teased constantly, that can lead people to have much worse outcomes, and to feel like there's really no way they can escape.
"As we see more and more studies like this," Copeland says, "I think people are going to be more and more comfortable thinking of bullying in the same way we think of [other sorts of] maltreatment in childhood — as something that's just not tolerated."