How does preteen bullying affect young people’s mental health?

Ben Devine – Parenting Research Centre, Australia, March 2020

Related to Bullying

Resource Summary

A recent rapid evidence assessment (REA) conducted by the Parenting Research Centre (PRC) highlights the association between bullying experiences in the preteen years and a range of negative mental health outcomes for preteens and adolescents.

Key findings:

  • Experiences of bullying in the preteen years are associated with a wide range of negative mental health outcomes in children and adolescents.
  • Preteen bullying was associated with psychotic experiences, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and eating disorders.
  • Preteens who experience more severe and/or chronic bullying have worse outcomes than children who experience less frequent and less severe bullying.
  • Preteens who experience bullying in multiple contexts (e.g. peer victimisation at school and sibling bullying at home) experience worse outcomes than those who experience bullying in a single context.

The assessment gathered studies that examined the statistical association1 between experiences of bullying between the ages of 10-12 years, and mental health outcomes during the preteen and adolescent years (10-18 years). Nineteen studies were identified, none of which were Australian.

Bullying took various forms, including verbal, physical, social/relational, individual, group and online victimisation. In this assessment, all bullying behaviour was conducted by other children and young people.

Key findings

1. Psychotic experiences

The assessment identified five studies that examined bullying and psychotic experience. All five studies found an association between being bullied in the preteen years and psychotic experiences in preteen and adolescent years.

The more chronic and severe the bullying, the more likely the child or adolescent was to have psychotic experiences. Additionally, those victimised in more than one context (e.g. both peer and sibling bullying) were more likely to experience psychotic disorders.

Bullying by a sibling was associated with psychotic disorder. Children and young people experiencing sibling bullying several times a week were 2-3 times more likely to meet criteria for a psychotic disorder.

There was an association between bullying victimisation and paranoid thinking. Both direct (e.g. name calling) and indirect bullying (e.g. exclusion from peer groups) was found to be associated with paranoid thinking. Girls experienced paranoid thinking to a greater extent than boys. Bullying experiences were also associated with hallucinations, cognitive disorganisation and other ‘negative symptoms’2.

2. Depression

Nine studies examined bullying and depression. All nine found an association between being bullied in the preteen years and depression in preteens and adolescents.

When students experienced an increase in peer victimisation over the school year (relative to the average victimisation they were experiencing), they also experienced relative increases in depressive symptoms.

Girls in more advanced stages of puberty compared to other girls at the start of grade six were at greater risk of being targeted by malicious rumours. Such gossip was found to partly contribute to increased levels of depression.

3. Anxiety

Four studies examined bullying and anxiety. All four found an association between being bullied in the preteen years and anxiety in preteens and adolescents.

Bullying was associated with social anxiety, particularly in girls. Trait resilience3 protected against the effect of bullying on social anxiety in girls only. Girls with higher levels of trait resilience were more likely to be protected against social anxiety, relative to those with low levels, when they experienced higher levels of bullying.

4. Suicidal ideation

Two studies examined bullying and suicidal ideation. Both found an association between being bullied in the preteen years and suicidal ideation in preteens and adolescents.

Children living in areas considered high-risk neighbourhoods (based on socio-economic indices4) who were frequently verbally or electronically bullied were more likely to report suicidal thoughts than those who were not bullied.

Group bullying was associated with higher levels of suicidal thoughts in children using child welfare facilities.

5. Eating disorders

One study examined bullying and eating disorders and found an association between being bullied in the preteen years and symptoms of eating disorders in preteens and adolescents.

Both female and male victims of bullying were at increased risk for symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, as well as associated features of eating disorders such as increased or decreased appetite; preoccupation with eating/food; amenorrhea; and use of medications to control weight.

6. Other health problems

Experiences of bullying were found to be associated with somatic complaints, with one study finding an association with stomach pains in girls but not boys. Bullying was also found to be associated with:

  • self-blame
  • internet addiction
  • attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tendencies
  • cognitive problems
  • bedwetting
  • feeling tense
  • feeling tired
  • sleep problems
  • poor appetite
  • emotional difficulties5; and
  • reduced general mental wellbeing (happiness in the domains of school, family, friends, school-work, appearance, and life as a whole).

Implications of findings

Evidence is a fundamental part of developing effective preventative strategies and initiatives. This assessment’s findings highlight the ongoing effects of preteen bullying on the mental health of young people. Additionally, it provides evidence that the more bullying a preteen is exposed to, the greater the negative mental health outcomes.

As a result, effective strategies to address bullying behaviours in preteen years should be prioritised. Ensuring that available resources take into account developmental differences for preteens is also key to reducing the impact of bullying.

Further reading

Methods: This article is based on a rapid evidence assessment conducted in September 2019 by the Parenting Research Centre. Studies were located through systematic searches of three academic databases. Studies were screened against selection criteria. Documents were eligible for inclusion if they reported the statistical association between bullying victimisation, where the mean age of victimisation occurrence was between 10-12 years, and mental health outcomes measured between 10-18 years. Where individual child bullying victimisation ages fell outside 10-12 years, the author accepted five years as the lower and 14 years as the upper age limit. Only English language studies were included. Nineteen studies were included in the rapid evidence assessment.

1 Statistical associations do not necessarily equate to causal relationships.
2 Negative symptoms include blunting of affect, poverty of speech and thought, apathy, anhedonia, reduced social drive, loss of motivation, lack of social interest, and inattention to social or cognitive input.
3 A personal trait that allows individuals to readily recover from stressful events.
4 The socioeconomic deprivation index was based on the average income, education, employment levels, living arrangements, marital status, and proportion of single-parent families.

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