Sept. 5, 2001 -- It may be time to revise an old schoolyard rhyme to say: sticks and stones may break my bones, and names can really hurt me.
Teenagers who are the targets of repeated taunts, threats, and/or physical violence in school are more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression, and girls appear to be particularly vulnerable, say Australian researchers who studied the effects of bullying on the mental health status of teens.
Among more than 2,600 secondary school students in Victoria, Australia, who were surveyed about bullying at age 13 and again a year later, about half reported being teased, having rumors spread about them, being deliberately excluded from a group, or experiencing physical threats or violence.
Two-thirds of those who were victimized were bullied more than once, and a history of bullying was found to be a good predictor for later self-reported depression and anxiety, write Lyndal Bond, PhD, and colleagues in the Sept. 1 issue of the British Medical Journal.
"It's good to see this research coming out in structured medical journals, because for too long we've seen this as just a normal aspect of child development, rather than a traumatic event," says bullying expert William S. Pollack, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston and director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "Bullying, teasing, and harassment are psychological and psychiatric traumas ... [that can lead to] anxiety, depression, dysfunction, nightmares, and later, incapacity to function actively and healthfully as an adult."
The researchers surveyed students about bullying in grade 8 (average age 13 years old) at the beginning and end of the school year, and followed up one year later at the end of grade 9. The survey also included a standard psychiatric evaluation for symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.
The researchers write that the "effect of bullying on mental health status is clearest for girls. That is, being victimized has a significant impact on the future emotional well-being of young adolescent girls independent of their social relations but does not for boys. This finding may be due to a real difference in the boys' response to victimization or to the small number of boys reporting symptoms of depression."
Girls who feel isolated due to bullying are particularly susceptible to mental health problems, says study author Lyndal Bond, head of the research unit at the Centre for Adolescent Health at Royal Children's Hospital in Victoria.
"For girls, having good attachments is very important; if they don't have them, they're almost six times more likely to report depressive symptoms the next year," Bond tells WebMD. "Having arguments with others is also very important: again, they are fives times more likely to report depressive symptoms, and [if they experience] victimization, [they are] two-and-a-half times more likely to report depressive symptoms."
Bond says that the study is the first to show in a longitudinal or "real-time" fashion the impacts of victimization on depression. "Conversely, depression doesn't seem to predict the occurrence of victimization, which some people think -- that if someone is a bit withdrawn that he might be more of a target," she says.
Pollack tells WebMD that boys are as deeply affected as girls by bullying, but are socialized to respond differently. "When we use standard measures, boys tend to score lower on the scales of anxiety and depression because of their socialization model in which, when the questions are relatively face value, boys tend to deny a certain level of pain when they have it."
He says that boys are just as likely as girls to be depressed or anxious as a result of bullying, but tend to respond more with some type of action, such as cutting school or lashing back at their tormentors.