Analysis of a population-based cohort of twins revealed a causal association between exposure to bullying and concurrent anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and impulsivity, and other mental health symptoms.
“One-third of children report having been bullied by their peers according to estimates from WHO. Childhood exposure to bullying refers to the experience of being a target of hostile behavior from other children (eg, being physically or verbally attacked); it is associated with a wide range of long-lasting adverse outcomes, particularly mental health outcomes such as anxiety,” Timothy Singham, BSc, of University College London, and colleagues wrote. “A key challenge for current research is to probe the causal nature of these widespread associations.”
To determine concurrent and longitudinal effects of exposure to bullying in childhood on mental health, researchers analyzed data from the Twins Early Development Study for 11,108 twins. First assessment occurred at a mean age of 11.3 years and last assessment occurred at a mean age of 16.3 years. Study participants completed the Multidimensional Peer-Victimization Scale at ages 11 and 14 years.
Researchers found that the most stringent twin differences estimates were consistent with a causal association between exposure to bullying at age 11 years and concurrent anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and impulsivity, inattention, and conduct problems.
Effects decreased over time. The significant effect of bullying exposure on anxiety persisted for 2 years but not 5 years.
Direct effects on paranoid thoughts and cognitive disorganization persisted for 5 years, according to researchers.
In an accompanying editorial, Judy Silberg, PhD, and Kenneth S. Kendler, MD, of Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, applauded the contribution of these findings to the mental health field.
“There are both causal and noncausal processes underlying mental health outcomes in children who have been bullied that have direct clinical implications for reducing the effect of being bullied by a peer. These include two approaches: reducing the bullying itself as a causal process and addressing preexisting factors arising from shared familial vulnerabilities to reduce the susceptibility to being bullied,” they wrote. “The identification of such preexisting risk factors, whether genetic and/or shared environmental, should be a major focus of future studies.” – by Amanda Oldt
Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.