Researchers at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions are getting closer to understanding why some children who are bullied turn to alcohol and other drugs and others abstain. The scholars are nearing the end of a five-year study examining 800 teens and mothers in Erie County, New York.
The researchers are hoping to determine how bullying and sexual harassment among teens lead to emotional distress and problematic substance use. The data is still preliminary, but senior research scientist Jennifer Livingston said they’ve already seen exciting results.
“Kids who had experienced severe victimization and had strong family support drank significantly less than kids who had severe victimization and no family support or poor family support,” Livingston told DrugRehab.com. “What we’re seeing is that family support is one of those protective factors that helps kids be more resilient and helps them cope with negative effects of being victimized.”
Numerous studies have determined that there is a relationship between bullying and substance use, but Livingston was interested in understanding the circumstances under which youth turn to alcohol or other drugs.
“We know that, from other research, kids who are bullied often feel bad about themselves, are depressed or suffer from anxiety,” Livingston said. “We also know from research with adult victims of violence or abuse that when some people are feeling depressed or anxious or upset, they turn to alcohol to cope with it. I was interested in seeing if the same was true of adolescents who had been bullied.”
Previous research showed that some people who had been bullied turned to substances of abuse, but others didn’t. No studies have definitively found why some children abstain.
“If you think about it, not everyone uses alcohol or other drugs as a coping mechanism,” said Livingston, who usually studies the intersection between substance use and interpersonal violence. “Not everybody uses substances as a means of coping with negative feelings. I became really curious to know if we can figure out who’s likely to and who isn’t, so that we can identify who is most in need of intervention.”
Livingston also wanted to know what protective factors could prevent a child who had been bullied from turning to alcohol or other drugs. To find out, she and her colleagues sent letters to New York households to recruit participants. One mother and one teen between the ages of 13 and 15 from each household agreed to fill out five surveys over a two-year period beginning in 2014.
About 200 of the teens also kept daily logs of their activities for eight weeks. They described what happened to them, what they did to others and if they used alcohol or other drugs that day.
The researchers have finished collecting baseline data and data from the daily logs, and they’re almost finished collecting data from a six-month follow-up survey. The early findings have been intriguing.
Comparing Bullying and Sexual Harassment
Livingston and her colleagues are also trying to compare different types of victimization. What are the psychological side effects of being sexually harassed compared with being bullied? She and her team are in the early stages of examining those results, but they’ve noticed some trends.
“On days where kids were bullied, there was some relationship with smoking cigarettes and e-cigarettes,” Livingston said. “On days that kids were sexually harassed, we saw a relationship with alcohol use.”
However, it’s still too early to conclude that one type of victimization causes a specific type of substance use. In general, older teens are more likely to try alcohol, and they’re more likely to be involved in sexual situations.
“It’s possible that they’re drinking in response to feeling bad about being sexually harassed or it’s possible that they’re being harassed while they’re in a drinking context,” Livingston said. “Drinking between boys and girls tends to occur in a pretty sexualized context. Kids aren’t very experienced with dating and sex yet and may act in a sexually aggressive or harassing way because they just don’t have good interpersonal skills or know how to get the attention of someone they are interested in.”
Livingston has studied sexual harassment and alcohol use in the past. Alongside Dr. Maria Testa, another senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions, Livingston found that alcohol made young women vulnerable to sexual assault. In another investigation, the researchers found that half of women who had been raped had experienced sexual assault as a minor.
In a separate study, the researchers found that women who were sexually assaulted were more likely to experience sexual harassment. The signs kept indicating that a history of sexual harassment may increase the chances of sexual assault or rape later in life.
“Basically, earlier experiences with victimization leave women vulnerable to being re-victimized over the life course,” Livingston said. “We know alcohol makes women vulnerable to sexual assault. We also know that some women drink to cope with the negative emotions associated with sexual victimization. My thought in looking at the peer victimization is, when does this all start? My hope is that if we can figure out how and where it starts, we can make progress towards prevention.”
Preventing Substance Use, Emotional Distress
One of the researchers’ main focuses has been on how family cohesion and family support can protect teens from negative outcomes after they’ve been bullied or sexually harassed. So far, the evidence indicates that family support is protective.
“My next step is to look at it longitudinally,” Livingston said. “So when we’re done with our six month data collection, we’re going to look and see if that relationship holds over time.”
In addition to substance use, Livingston and her colleagues are also looking at emotional distress, anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, kids who report more severe or frequent victimization also have more depressive symptoms. They haven’t looked at the results on anxiety yet, but they have analyzed earlier data on how upset teens get after being bullied or sexually harassed.
“There is definitely some distress from these experiences,” Livingston said. “One of the things we found is that kids that are not identifying as strictly heterosexual are experiencing a lot more bullying and more sexual harassment and are more distressed by it than kids who identify as strictly heterosexual.”
Other research has found that individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ have higher rates of substance use than the general population. They’re also more likely to experience co-occurring mental health disorders.
A year from now, the Buffalo researchers will have more data and will prepare to submit the results to a peer-reviewed journal. At that time, they’ll have more insight into the relationship between bullying and emotional issues and how to protect against early initiation of substance use.