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Another Reason to Stamp Out Bullying

Bullied children go on to have greater risk of substance abuse a few years later.

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Girl being bullied at school

Digital Vision./Thinkstock

It’s painful for parents and children alike when a kid is taunted by their peers for being gay, or for having chronic health conditions, or when “boys are being boys,” as society sometimes excuses it. Bullying is traumatic enough, but the damage can follow young people into their later years. One of the concrete examples of this was revealed in a new longitudinal study, published in the journal Pediatrics.

The study found that, “Students who experienced more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade were more likely to have greater symptoms of depression in seventh grade, and a greater likelihood of using alcohol, marijuana or tobacco in tenth grade,” wrote the study’s lead author, Valerie Earnshaw, Ph.D. Earnshaw is a social psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Delaware College of Education and Human Development.

The study looked at a racially diverse mix of children from Birmingham, Alabama; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles County, California, as they progressed from fifth to tenth grade. The study found that the most commonly bullied young people were boys, sexual minority youth and youth living with chronic illness.

Because the study was longitudinal, or tracking people over a long period of time, the data was able to look at drug and alcohol abuse later. It found that “peer victimization in fifth grade has lasting effects on substance use five years later. We also show that depressive symptoms help to explain why peer victimization is associated with substance use, suggesting that youth may be self-medicating by using substances to relieve these negative emotions,” Earnshaw wrote. But the damage doesn’t stop there, either: Substance abuse in adolescence can, in turn, have a negative effect on the adult years. Alcohol and marijuana use may interfere with brain development, for example, while tobacco use can lead to respiratory illness and cancer.

The takeaway from the research is this:

  • Pediatricians should screen young people for signs of peer victimization, symptoms of depression and substance use.

Teachers and school administrators need to take bullying seriously. “This study gives some additional evidence as to why it’s important to intervene,” writes Earnshaw. “It also may give teachers insight into why students are depressed or using substances in middle and high school.”


Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers. 


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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