Bullying may be worse than child abuse

A recent study showed teens who were bullied as kids were around five times more likely to suffer anxiety than kids who ...
Stefano Lunardi

A recent study showed teens who were bullied as kids were around five times more likely to suffer anxiety than kids who were maltreated by adults.

A study shows bullying can be as bad for kids' mental health as being mistreated by adults, proving a need to focus on stopping bullying where it starts – in the playground.

The study led by Professor Dieter Wolke and published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal in April, was the first of its kind – sampling some 4000 children from the UK and US.

It found teens who were bullied as kids were around five times more likely to suffer anxiety, and nearly twice as likely to report depression and self-harm than kids who were maltreated by adults.

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Professor Wolke says, until now, governments have focused efforts and resources on family matters, but if the effects of bullying really are this perverse and one-third of children worldwide report being bullied, something needs to change. And while New Zealand experts say there are still a lot of questions around both the study and the findings, that's the one thing we should all agree on.


TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) conducts a four-yearly series of international assessments of a minimum of 4500 students around the world to gauge learning experiences and achievements.

Their latest cycle showed roughly 31 per cent of Year Five students in New Zealand said they experienced bullying "about weekly", ranking us below 43 of the 50 countries involved.

University of Auckland's Dr Simon Denny is an associate professor, and also a paediatrician at the Centre for Youth Health, who focuses on the mental health of young people in New Zealand.

He says the study, while impressive, doesn't necessarily tell us anything new.

"Really, it just affirms what we already know, that any form of denigration in childhood years is harmful," he says.

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"The findings between the children wasn't hugely different. And there are some methodological questions you have to ask if you're comparing these, like was the degree of the bullying the same as the degree of the maltreatment?"

He adds that in one group, the maltreatment occurred during childhood while the bullying was in adolescence – a time which was more recent and thus would have a stronger association in their memory.

"That said, it's a good study. Conclusion-wise, children are entitled to be free from these things and we do need to think about bullying."

He suggests one of the most effective ways to do this is to focus on the peer group as a whole.

"We need to teach young people what it's like to be bullied and how to intervene and stop their peers from bullying or being bullied. In that developmental stage, the peer group is so important and when you're ostracised, it really hurts, when you're trying to figure out who you are and find your place it can be devastating."

He says results from his own data show 6 per cent of secondary school teenagers are bullied weekly or more, and 20-30 per cent had had someone physically assault them.

"Young people put up with a lot. We wouldn't put up with that as adults, would we? But they do."


Denny points to international anti-bullying programme called KiVa (kiusaamista vastaan – Finnish for "against bullying") which addresses this peer group issue through teaching, activities and games within schools.

Education manager at Accent Learning, Deidre Vercauteren is helping roll out KiVa in New Zealand schools to address the issue.

She says KiVa is designed using decades of research on bullying, bystander behaviour and ways to engage children and young adults.

Under the programme, the whole school is involved in surveys, online games and lessons, and staff are specially trained to deal with incidents.

"We have some truly appalling statistics and what we hope is that schools will take up a responsible way of addressing what is a New Zealand problem," she says.

 - Stuff


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