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Childhood bullying may be worse than abuse for kids' mental health

Bullying may be worse for kids' mental health than abuse

A new study has found that bullying may be more detrimental to children's mental health than abuse by an adult.


Researchers analyzed data from the US-based Great Smoky Mountain Study and the UK-based Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to determine whether the long-term effects of bullying were due to joint exposure to bullying and maltreatment by an adult or whether bullying had its own consequences.

For the study, researchers defined maltreatment as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or severe maladaptive parenting.

Researchers analyzed data taken from 1,273 participants in the US-based Great Smoky Mountain Study (GSMS study) and 4,026 participants in the UK-based Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC study).

For the Great Smokey Mountain Study, the researchers assessed reports of maltreatment and bullying from the ages of 9 to 16 and mental health outcomes from the ages of 19 to 25. For the ALSPAC study, the researchers looked for reports of maltreatment between the ages of 8 weeks and 8.6 years, bullying at ages 8, 10 and 13, and mental health outcomes at the age of 18. The reports of maltreatment were made by the mothers of the children in the studies, and the mental health outcomes included depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies.

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After adjusting for sex and family hardships, children in the GSMS study who were only maltreated were at an increased risk for depression in young adulthood compared with children who were not maltreated or bullied. In the ALSPAC study, children who were only being maltreated were not at an increased risk for any mental health problem compared with children who were not maltreated or bullied.

Those were both bullied and maltreated were at increased risk for overall mental health problems in both studies and at increased risk for self-harm according to the ALSPAC cohort compared with neutral children. In both studies, children who were bullied by peers only were more likely than children were maltreated by an adult only to have mental health problems.

In the GSMS study, 16.3 percent of children reported bullying only, 15 percent reported maltreatment only, and 9.8 percent experienced both bullying and maltreatment. In the ALSPAC study, 29.7 percent reported bullying only, 8.5 percent reported maltreatment only, and 7 percent reported both.

"Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated," said Professor Dieter Wolke from the Warwick Medical School in Coventry, United Kingdom. "Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression in both groups."

A 2014 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that long-term bullying has a major negative impact on children's overall health, with the effects becoming more severe the longer the bullying continues. However, the sooner an intervention takes places, the sooner the bullying stops, and the less likely it will be that the bullying will have a lasting, damaging effect on the child's health later on in life.

[Photo credit: CristinaMuraca / Shutterstock]