Bullying during adolescence may be tied to health problems that follow teens into adulthood, a Canadian study suggests.
Researchers who followed 662 youth for a decade starting when they were between 12 and 19 years old found that both physical and emotional bullying was linked with difficulties such as headaches, dizziness, backaches, insomnia, abdominal pain and poor body image.
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Even emotional taunts predicted physical health problems in adulthood, researchers reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
"These health problems, be it depression, anxiety, somatic symptoms, or poor self-concepts, can interfere with several life domains including academic and occupational performance, relationship satisfaction, economic success and more severe health outcomes," study co-author Alanna D. Hager of Metropolitan State University of Denver said by email.
"The study highlights that early adolescence is a sensitive time for the implementation of intervention and prevention efforts that can curb trajectories of health problems for youth," added co-author Bonnie J. Leadbeater of the University of Victoria, B.C., where the research was conducted.
More efforts to prevent bullying needed
Previous research has linked peer victimization, like other forms of stress, to adverse changes in biological, emotional, behavioural and social processes that over time can result in chronic physical health problems, the authors note. The impact can be particularly devastating during adolescence, when teens tend to depend on their peers for self-esteem and identity development.
For the current study, researchers analyzed data from six interviews youth completed between 2003 and 2014.
To measure bullying, participants were asked questions such as how often they got pushed or shoved by peers, and how often peers spread lies about them to make other youth dislike them.
Researchers assessed physical symptoms by asking participants to rate how frequently they experienced problems such as headaches, dizziness and insomnia. To monitor body image, the youth rated how regularly they noticed they were physically healthy or felt particularly proud or uncomfortable with their body's development.
Over the course of the six interviews, roughly 29 to 52 per cent of the boys reported experiencing physical bullying at least sometimes, as did 20 to 29 per cent of girls.
In addition, about 28 to 67 per cent of males and 37 to 54 per cent of females said they were victims of emotional taunts at least some of the time.
About one to two per cent of participants reported they were bullied all of the time, the study found.
Generally, the females reported more physical symptoms and poorer body image than the males throughout the study period.
Physical health problems were consistently tied to emotional taunts. But the connection between physical bullying and these health problems was less consistent over the course of the study, which the authors believe may be due to fewer instances of this type of victimization among older teens.
One limitation of the study is its predominantly white population, which may limit how much the findings apply to people of other races and ethnicities, the authors note.
In addition, it's possible that physical health problems might make teens the target of bullies, rather than surfacing as a result of peer victimization.
Still, the authors conclude, the findings highlight the need for more efforts to prevent bullying during adolescence and offer therapy or other needed treatments to victims.
Warning signs of bullying might range from teens complaining of excessive health issues in order to stay home from school, to struggling with sleep or concentration in class, the study authors said by email. Victims might also conceal their bodies or physical abilities by wearing baggy clothes or skipping gym or recess.
Avoiding bullying entirely may not be possible during adolescence, making the response critical for preventing long-term health effects, said Dr. Matthew Davis, a researcher at the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who wasn't involved in the study.
"The time to respond to bullying, and to support victims of bullying, is during adolescence when it occurs," Davis said by email. "Don't wait to see whether it gets better; make sure the teen bullying victim knows that he/she is not to blame."