Study shows long-term childhood bullying linked to distrust and mental health problems in teens

Bullying in all their forms, can have serious and lasting effects.Picture: Unsplash/ Jakayla Toney

Bullying in all their forms, can have serious and lasting effects.Picture: Unsplash/ Jakayla Toney

Published Feb 19, 2024


When we think of the word “bully”, we might picture a child being pushed around by another kid, or someone being insulted, whether in person or online.

These experiences, in all their forms, can have serious and lasting effects. While it's not always possible to make everyone get along, there are steps we can take to reduce bullying and create a more welcoming environment for everyone.

A recent study co-led by UCLA Health and the University of Glasgow revealed the significant impact of childhood bullying on young teenagers' mental health.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Mental Health, indicate that teenagers who develop a strong distrust of others as a result of childhood bullying are more likely to experience mental health problems in adulthood, such as anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and anger.

Using data from 10 000 children in the UK who were studied for nearly two decades, researchers found that adolescents who were bullied at age 11 and developed greater interpersonal distrust by age 14 were around 3.5 times more likely to experience clinically significant mental health problems at age 17 compared to those who developed less distrust.

Dr George Slavich, the study's senior author and director of UCLA Health's Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research, highlighted the potential of these findings to inform new interventions aimed at countering the negative impact of bullying on mental health.

He emphasised the importance of investing in research to identify risk factors for poor health and translating this knowledge into prevention programmes that can improve lifelong health and resilience, particularly among young people.

A survey by the 1 000 Women Trust found that 57% of children report that they have been bullied in some way.

In South Africa, there have been five highly publicised instances of bullying, often resulting in fatalities.

According to the World Health Organization, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds.

Understanding what bullying in school entails is crucial for both children and adults.

Bullying is any intentional behaviour that aims to hurt or upset someone over time and can take various forms, including verbal harassment through words, insults or offences.

According to the Department of Basic Education, school bullying can be physical, verbal or emotional and often occurs repeatedly over time.

THIS behaviour may involve a group of pupils targeting and isolating a particular individual. | Ilayza Unsplash

It can happen in various places within and around the school, such as during breaks, in hallways, bathrooms, on school buses, in classes requiring group work and in after-school activities.

This behaviour may involve a group of pupils targeting and isolating a particular individual, often gaining the support of bystanders who fear becoming victims themselves.

Research studies conducted by the NICHD indicate that children who are bullied are at an increased risk for mental health problems, headaches and difficulties adjusting to school.

Victims of bullying can also experience long-term effects on their self-esteem. Moreover, individuals who engage in bullying behaviour are at a higher risk for substance use, academic problems and future violence against others.

The most serious effects of bullying are seen in individuals who are both bullies and victims, putting them at greater risk for mental and behavioural challenges compared to those who are solely victims or bullies.

What are the long-term effects of bullying on mental and behavioural challenges in individuals who are both bullies and victims?

Individuals who are both bullies and victims of bullying face serious long-term effects, including greater risks for mental health problems, low self-esteem, substance use, academic difficulties and a higher likelihood of future violence.

This combination can lead to ongoing mental and behavioural challenges into adulthood, underscoring the need for support and intervention for those affected.

Under the South African Schools Act, all schools are required to have a Code of Conduct to which all learners must adhere.

In the event of bullying, it is important for the victim or any pupil who witnesses bullying to report it, at which point the bully will be dealt with according to the school's Code of Conduct.

These legal measures are in place to provide recourse for victims of bullying and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.

By understanding the legal options available, those affected and their families can take steps to address bullying and seek protection under the law.

These insights highlight the far-reaching consequences of bullying at schools and the importance of addressing this issue to ensure the well-being and safety of all pupils.

Education and open discussions about bullying can play a key role in empowering children to recognise and prevent bullying and fostering a supportive and inclusive school environment.