Being Bullied May Increase Mental Health Issues

Girls bullying another girl

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Researchers have known for years that bullying has lasting consequences, many of which are long-term. In fact, when kids are repeatedly bullied it can affect them emotionally and psychologically. For instance, they may experience low self-esteem, an inability to trust others, and have trouble forming lasting friendships.

But the effects of being bullied are more than just emotional and psychological. In fact, research shows that there may be physical, structural differences in the brains of teens who are regularly victimized. What's more, these physical changes could contribute to mental health issues later in life, according to a study in the journal Molecular Psychology.

This study, conducted by Erin Burke Quinlan of King's College London in the U.K., is the first to demonstrate that chronic peer victimization during the teen years produces structural brain changes that impact mental health.

The Research

Burke Quinlan and the other researchers analyzed data, questionnaires, and brain scans of nearly 700 participants from England, Ireland, France, and Germany. As part of the project, high-resolution brain scans of the participants were taken when they were 14 and 19 years old. Meanwhile, the participants also had to complete questionnaires about whether they had been bullied and to what extent when they were 14, 16 and 19 years old.

The Results

Overall, 5% of the young people in the study had experienced chronic or ongoing bullying. What's more, these participants also showed changes in brain volume as well as the levels of depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity at age 19. While the mental health issues present at age 19 support previous findings that long-term bullying contributes to mental health issues, what is significant about this study is the fact that researchers found decreases in the parts of the brain called the caudate and putamen that corresponded with the chronic bullying.

In other words, the bullying these kids experienced along with the stress that it caused, physically altered their brain. Consequently, the researchers suggested that these changes explain the relationship between high peer victimization and higher levels of general anxiety at age 19.

Meanwhile, another study found that being bullied in school increases the extent of mental health problems at age 25 by 40%. This study, which was presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick, also found that being bullied increases the probability of being unemployed at age 25 by about 35%; and for those who were employed, having been bullied reduces their income compared to others by around 2%.

The researchers, who were from Lancaster University, University of Sydney, and the University of Wollongong, studied various types of bullying. These forms of bullying included being called names, being excluded from social groups, having possessions stolen or damaged, or being threatened with or experiencing violence.

What's more, they noted that girls were more likely to experience relational (or psychological) forms of bullying while boys were more likely to experience physical bullying. They also indicated that the more persistent and frequent the bullying, the worse the long-term consequences.

Why Cyberbullying May Pose the Greatest Risk

But is there one type of bullying that's worse than another? Researchers in Norway believe there is. When it comes to mental health issues later in life, their research suggests that cyberbullying may have a greater impact than more traditional forms of bullying.

For instance, kids who are victims of digital bullying tend to be more fearful, apprehensive, and prone to anxiety attacks than victims of traditional bullying. But, when they are subjected to cyberbullying for long periods of time, their general anxiety symptoms start to resemble those of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One reason for this finding, the researcher's reason, is accessibility. With cyberbullying, those who are targeting them can always reach them, any time of the day, through text, social media and more. There is no place that is really a safe haven for the victims, especially if they have their smartphone with them 24 hours a day. There is always this realization that at any time something negative or hurtful can show up.

Furthermore, with traditional bullying, the person being victimized knows who was there to witness their experience. But with cyberbullying, it is so widely published and shared sometimes that it can almost be overwhelming for the victim to think about. They often feel like the entire world knows, and this can compound their feelings of anxiety and fear.

A Word from Verywell

It is important to recognize that being bullied does not mean that these long-term consequences are inevitable. But, they should be a warning sign for parents and educators that bullying is not an issue that should be ignored. The teen years are not only a time of new experiences and stresses, but they also are a time of significant brain development. For this reason, parents, teachers, and administrators need to make every effort to limit the amount of bullying teens experience. This can be accomplished by implementing bullying prevention programs as well as consistent discipline procedures for kids who bully others.

What's more, the kids who are being targeted, along with their parents, need to be empowered to not only report bullying, but also informed on how to move on after a bullying experience. Not adequately addressing bullying not only leads to additional victimization but also sets the stage for potential mental health issues down the road.

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Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Erin Burke Quinlan, Edward D. Barker, Qiang Luo, Tobias Banaschewski, Arun L. W. Bokde, Uli Bromberg, Christian Büchel, Sylvane Desrivières, Herta Flor, Vincent Frouin, Hugh Garavan, Bader Chaarani, Penny Gowland, Andreas Heinz, Rüdiger Brühl, Jean-Luc Martinot, Marie-Laure Paillère Martinot, Frauke Nees, Dimitri Papadopoulos Orfanos, Tomáš Paus, Luise Poustka, Sarah Hohmann, Michael N. Smolka, Juliane H. Fröhner, Henrik Walter, Robert Whelan, Gunter Schumann. "Peer Victimization and Its Impact on Adolescent Brain Development and Psychopathology." Molecular Psychiatry, 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0297-9


  • Gorman, Emma. "School Bullying Increases Chances of Mental Health Issues and Unemployment in Later Life." Lancaster University, April 17 2019. https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/news/school-bullying-increases-chances-of-mental-health-issues-and-unemployment-in-later-life