The mental effects of teenage bullying largely vanish after five years, a major new study has shown, offering ‘a message of hope’ to youngsters that they will get over childhood trauma.
Although previous research has linked bullying with long-term problems like anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and impulsivity, the new findings from University College London (UCL) found most of the effects wore off over time.
The research involved 11,108 participants from the Twins Early Develoment Study (TEDS), which is run from King’s College London and follows identical twins to tease out whether traits have been inherited, or have developed because of social circumstances.
Although youngsters who were bullied by peers between the ages of 11 and 14 suffered poorer mental health two years after abuse has stopped, all effects, except paranoid thoughts, were gone by aged 16.
“While our findings show that being bullied leads to detrimental mental health outcomes, they also offer a message of hope by highlighting the potential for resilience,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Jean-Baptiste Pingault, of UCL Psychology & Language Sciences.
“Bullying certainly causes suffering, but the impact on mental health decreases over time, so children are able to recover in the medium term,” Dr Pingault said.
“The detrimental effects of bullying show that more needs to be done to help children who are bullied. In addition to interventions aimed at stopping bullying from happening, we should also support children who have been bullied by supporting resilience processes on their path to recovery.”
A recent survey suggested that around 54 per cent of young people aged between 12 and 20 have been bullied at some point. Previous research has suggested that it can increase suicide risk, lead to poor school performance and result in low self-esteem. Yet it was unclear whether such problems lasted over time.
Dr Sophie Dix, Director of Research at mental health research charity MQ, said: “This unprecedented study gives the strongest evidence to date that bullying can directly cause many common mental health conditions – and have a serious effect on mental health in the long-term.
“But the good news is that it shows that people can and do get better – demonstrating the importance of resilience.
“Now we need to understand why this is and develop new ways, through research, to intervene and change lives.
“We hope this study provides fresh impetus to make sure young people at risk – and those currently being bullied – get effective help as soon as possible.”
The research was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.