How Deep Is the Impact of Bullying?

Bullying leaves an impression, but the negative effects may dissipate within a few years.

By Knvul Sheikh, published January 2, 2018 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

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Being the target of playground name-calling, ponytail yanking, or online harassment can be detrimental to children's mental health. A recent study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry provides the strongest evidence to date that being bullied at a young age leads to symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as an increase in paranoid and disorganized thinking. But there is hope: Most of these effects seem to dissipate within a few years.

Through surveys of more than 11,000 twins in the United Kingdom, researchers were able to isolate the extent to which bullying caused negative outcomes, compared to genetic or environmental factors. Kids who were bullied as tweens or teens were more likely than their nonbullied siblings to have a wide range of troubles two years later. But at the five-year mark, the anxiety and depression attributable to bullying had disappeared, and the lingering impact on paranoid and disorganized thoughts was small.

"When you're going through it, the impact is more salient," says Catherine Bradshaw, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the study. "But as time goes on, you develop strategies for managing that crisis." Some ways adults can help: Talk to children about bullying experiences early on and encourage them to join a group or team, or to find other ways to relieve stress. "We want to be sure to support kids and consider the risk of bullying along with factors that can compound it—including pre-existing mental health conditions and isolation from peer groups."