Children who are bullied can still experience negative effects on their physical and mental health more than 40 years later, say researchers from King’s College London.
Their study tracked 7,771 children born in 1958 from the age of seven until 50.
Those bullied frequently as children were at an increased risk of depression and anxiety, and more likely to report a lower quality of life at 50.
Anti-bullying groups said people needed long-term support after being bullied.
A previous study, from Warwick University, tracked more than 1,400 people between the ages of nine and 26 and found that bullying had long-term negative consequences for health, job prospects and relationships.
This study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggests that the impact of bullying could be longer-lasting – into middle age.
Although the risk of poor health, and social and economic consequences 40 years after exposure to bullying was small – about 1.5 times the norm – the study said it was similar to that faced by children in care.
‘Poorer mental health’
To collect their data, researchers asked parents if their child had been exposed to bullying, at ages seven and 11. More than a quarter said they had been bullied occasionally and 15% bullied frequently.
Over the years, researchers then carried out tests to see if the known effects of bullying persisted into adulthood.
Individuals were tested for psychological distress and general health at the ages of 23 and 50, for psychiatric problems at 45 and cognitive functioning, social relationships and well-being at 50.
The study found that those who were bullied in childhood were more likely to have poorer physical and mental health and cognitive functioning at 50.
Those who were bullied frequently were more likely to be depressed and have suicidal thoughts.
There were also social and economic consequences to childhood bullying.
Those bullied as children were more likely to be less educated, with men who were bullied more likely to be unemployed and earn less.
Social relationships were also affected with bullied individuals less likely to be in a relationship and to have good support from friends and family at 50.
Prof Louise Arseneault, senior study author, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said: “We need to move away from any perception that bullying is just an inevitable part of growing up. Teachers, parents and policy-makers should be aware that what happens in the school playground can have long-term repercussions for children.
“Programmes to stop bullying are extremely important, but we also need to focus our efforts on early intervention to prevent potential problems persisting into adolescence and adulthood.”
The study said the harmful effect of bullying remained even when other factors including childhood IQ, emotional and behavioural problems and parents’ socioeconomic status were taken into account.
Prof Arseneault added: “Forty years is a long time, so there will no doubt be additional experiences during the course of these young people’s lives which may either protect them against the effects of bullying, or make things worse. Our next step is to investigate what these are.”
‘Traumatic and painful’
Lucie Russell, director of campaigns and media at Young Minds, said the research highlighted that the effects of bullying are not just temporary.
“Bullying is traumatic and painful for every young person who experiences it and its long-term impact can lead to psychological damage for many years to come as this important study has shown.
“Responding to bullying must therefore take on board this impact with long-term, follow-up support to minimise the pain and suffering many victims experience throughout their lives.”
Martha Evans, acting national co-ordinator for the Anti-Bullying Alliance said: “Parents/carers, teachers and children and young people all have a part to play in working together to create a society where bullying is not tolerated and where we all respond to bullying quickly and appropriately.”
Emma-Jane Cross, CEO and founder of BeatBullying, said young people now faced even greater threats from cyberbullying and trolling, and called for more action.
“We can only assume that the consequences of bullying could be even more damaging for future generations.
“We need an urgent review of how bullying and cyberbullying is tackled in this country led by an anti-bullying tsar – covering the role of industry, schools and government, and ensuring that children who are bullied receive the counselling support they desperately need.”