New study focuses on negative impacts of bullying on kids’ health

Bullying is not new, but new research reveals long-term impacts.

Bullying is not a new issue or the latest educational “fad.” However,  it might appear that way to some due to increase in research, policies, information and media attention focus on these issues. In addition, the availability of bullying prevention materials for educators, youth workers, parents and others is a factor. One positive outcome of the increased attention on the issue is that many of the myths related to bullying are being challenged. The reality is, the problem of bullying has been around for a very long time, with serious effects on the health and wellbeing of those most impacted.

For example, a growing body of research is challenging the myth that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” A new longitudinal study conducted by the Boston’s Children’s Hospital and published in the journal, Pediatrics, reveals the long-term impacts of physical and emotional peer victimization and bullying. The study’s researchers analyzed data from more than 4,000 diverse elementary through high school students in three U.S. cities.

They found that physical and mental health outcomes, including depression symptoms and lower self-worth, were significantly worse for children who had been targets of bullying in the past and for those who were currently being targeted. Negative health outcomes were worse across all grade levels for the children who had both past and present experiences of being targets of bullying behaviors. In other words, the study indicates that negative physical and mental health impacts tied to bullying experiences can accumulate over the years.

This research is vital because of its unique analysis of children’s bullying histories on mental and physical health, including whether previous bullying experiences increase the negative impacts of ongoing bullying. The study is also consistent with other research that indicates that being the target of bullying behaviors and peer victimization is associated with poor mental and physical health.

While research studies like this are important to support our understanding of the realities and long-term effects of bullying, listening to the stories of those most impacted can help to make these issues real, relevant and powerful.  An article like Sticks, Stones, and Names Can Damage the Spirit by Warren Blumenfled is a great example. It is written from his own personal experiences of being targeted related to gender issues beginning in 1952 as he entered kindergarten as a little boy. These kinds of real-life stories help us to remember that bullying, bias and harassment are not “new” issues and that the negative impacts of these experiences can be serious, deep and long-lasting.

Many scholars and educators are working hard to challenge myths that have surrounded issues related to bullying for a long time, such as “boys will be boys,” “girls will be girls,” “bullying builds character” and “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for parents, youth workers and other adults to learn more about issues of bullying and ways to create safe, affirming and fair environments with and on behalf of young people.  For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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