By Sarah Boseley
April 28, 2015
Children who are bullied are at greater risk of mental health problems in later life than those who are maltreated by adults, according to research.
The authors of the study say it is time that bullying is taken more seriously. They found children who were bullied were five times more likely to experience anxiety and twice as likely to talk of suffering depression and self-harm as those who were maltreated at home.
Maltreatment – by which they mean “any physical or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, or negligent treatment resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity” – has been the main focus of concern with regard to children’s later mental health until now, says Professor Dieter Wolke, who led the study, from the University of Warwick.
The paper published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry suggests that bullying by other children can actually do more long-term harm.
“Until now, governments have focused their efforts and resources on family maltreatment rather than bullying,” said Wolke. “Since one in three children worldwide report being bullied, and it is clear that bullied children have similar or worse mental health problems later in life to those who are maltreated, more needs to be done to address this imbalance. Moreover, it is vital that schools, health services and other agencies work together to tackle bullying.”
The study looked at children in the UK and in the US who were taking part in two major longitudinal pieces of research. In the UK, the 4,026 children involved were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, with the 1,420 in the US recruited to the Great Smoky Mountain Studies research.
The information on maltreatment among children aged from eight weeks to eight years old in the UK came from mothers, who were asked at regular intervals whether the child had been physically or sexually abused and whether the partner had been physically or emotionally cruel. Hitting, shouting and hostile parenting were also recorded as maltreatment. The children themselves were asked whether they had been bullied at the ages of eight, 10 and 13.
In the US group, maltreatment and bullying were assessed through regular parent and child interviews from the age of nine to 16. All the children were assessed for anxiety and depression at the age of 18 and asked about self-harm and suicidal urges.
In a commentary published in the journal, David Finkelhor and Corinna Jenkins Tucker from the University of New Hampshire argue that the current response to child maltreatment, abuse and bullying is inadequate because it is fragmented.
“Separate institutions, researchers and advocacy groups lobby and often compete on behalf of victims of child molestation, rape, exposure to domestic violence, corporal punishment, physical abuse and bullying,” they write. “Attention is also hampered by the description of abusive behaviours such as peer violence (including that among siblings) as being part of a ‘normal childhood’ and by viewing efforts to address such abuse as a sign of overwrought protectionism.”
But bullying has gradually gained traction as an important public health and child welfare issue, they say, in the wake of high-profile cases such as the James Bulger case in 1993.
Comparing children who are bullied to children who are maltreated may not help the rivalry between the child protection lobbies, they say, but the findings are not that strong. They could be explained, for instance, by bullying taking place at a later age than maltreatment and closer to the time of the mental health assessment.
But they say the study is “a call to the fragmented child protection lobbies to join forces”, adding: “This new study illustrates the growing consensus that children are entitled to grow up free from violence, denigration and non-consented sexual activity at the hands of both adults and young peers.”
Dr Jennifer Wild, associate professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford, said the researchers did not investigate why bullying caused mental health problems. But, she said: “The findings are important because they highlight the devastating consequences of bullying and the need for zero tolerance programmes.
“Governmental efforts have focused almost exclusively on public policy to address family maltreatment; much less attention and resources has been paid to bullying. Since bullying is frequent and found in all social groups, and current evidence supports that bullied children have similar or worse long-term mental health outcomes than maltreatment, this imbalance requires attention.”