Bullying transcends childish acts such as teasing, rough housing or joking around. It can be a dangerous activity with devastating physical and psychological effects. It’s a prominent risk factor for substance abuse and addiction, but the person being bullied isn’t the only one at risk.
We’re born into a world that rewards winners, but some people learn that they can rise to the top without labor. Those people knock others down to boost themselves up. They lie, cheat or steal credit for the ideas of others. Or they criticize, mock or degrade others to make themselves look better. People who repeatedly take advantage of power to intentionally harm others are bullies.
Bullying is defined as repeated, undesired and aggressive behavior that involves an inequality of power. Power can be physical, social or psychological. The three criteria that researchers use to identify bullying behavior are:
Laura Crothers, a nationally recognized expert on childhood bullying and a psychology professor at Duquesne University, told DrugRehab.com that bullying often occurs without provocation.
“It’s not reactive or it’s not fighting back when someone else has been aggressive,” Crothers said. “There is a power differential between perpetrators and victims. The power can be physical. It can be social. It could be intellectual. It could be socio-economic or racial. The bully has more power than the victim, and the behaviors tend to be repeated over time.”
The prevalence of bullying causes many people to believe that it’s a rite of passage. Adults often justify the behavior as boys being boys, harmless gossip or immature behavior. But the behavior isn’t harmless.
“Children can’t solve bullying themselves,” Crother said. “That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes that adults make, is thinking that kids can figure it out themselves or they’ll get through it on their own. We haven’t seen that to be the case in the literature.”
Bullying can lead to physical violence, mental health problems and other life difficulties. It’s also a risk factor for substance abuse. It’s difficult to find a direct link between bullying and substance abuse because both behaviors are relatively common. More than 17 percent of children have tried an illicit drug by eighth grade, and nearly 50 percent have used an illicit drug by their senior year of high school, according to the 2016 Monitoring the Future survey. Rates of childhood alcohol use are even higher.
“Children can’t solve bullying themselves. That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes that adults make, is thinking that kids can figure it out themselves or they’ll get through it on their own. We haven’t seen that to be the case in the literature.”
Comparatively, about 20 percent of high schoolers in the United States say they have been bullied on school property in the past year, and more than 15 percent say they have been bullied electronically in the past year, according to results from the CDC’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
“What we know is there seems to be a relationship between bullying and substance abuse, but we don’t understand the direction or the causality,” Crothers said. “It isn’t known which causes the other.”
Numerous studies have established a relationship between bullying, psychological health and substance abuse. Research isn’t conclusive, and bullying doesn’t affect everyone the same way. But it’s a major health problem with serious consequences.
“In terms of perpetrators, bullies themselves, there seems to be a connection between engaging in bullying and using or abusing substances,” Crothers said. “The idea is that children who are aggressive at a young age tend to seek out peers who are also non-rule governed.
“That peer environment that they seek out seems to reinforce the child’s aggression and the propensity to engage in other deviant behaviors, which may include substance use and then potentially using multiple drugs in late adolescence and into adulthood.”
It is less clear whether being bullied causes people to engage in substance abuse. One theory suggests that alcohol and other drug use is a way to cope with bullying victimization. Victims might use drugs to self-medicate symptoms of depression or anxiety that developed after being bullied. Bullies may use drugs to cope with the same mental health issues that caused them to act out.
“In terms of perpetrators, bullies themselves, there seems to be a connection between engaging in bullying and using or abusing substances. The idea is that children who are aggressive at a young age tend to seek out peers who are also non-rule governed.“
Studies also support the notion that aggressive behavior and substance use co-occur because each behavior is an attempt to cope with peer rejection. An extensive review of literature published in 2010 in School Psychology Quarterly supported the notion that risk factors for bullying and substance abuse overlap. Risk factors for bullying and bully victimization, such as social difficulties, negative community influences and academic struggles, are also risk factors for substance abuse.
Bullying is a global problem that affects people of all ages, ethnicities, religions and cultural backgrounds. Surveys report that between 20 and 30 percent of American students are involved in bullying, either as bullies or victims, but the number of students who experience negative side effects of bullying behavior is less clear.
Consistently, boys are more likely than girls to bully or be bullied. But some research indicates that girls are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and are more vulnerable to substance abuse than boys. Researchers suspect that girls may be more vulnerable to mental health side effects because girls are more likely to engage in psychological bullying than boys.
A large-scale 2007 study of middle and high school students in a large metropolitan area found that bullying behavior differed by ethnicity. Native American and African-American students were more likely than white and Hispanic students to bully other students, and Asian students were the least likely to bully. However, all of the aforementioned ethnicities were bullied at similar rates except Native Americans, who were much more likely to be bullied.
Experts often categorize people affected by bullying as bullies, bully-victims, victims or bystanders.
engage in bullying behaviors but do not experience victimization behaviors.
are victims of bullying who also engage in bullying behavior.
experience bullying behavior but do not bully anyone else.
observe bullying behavior but are not directly affected by it.
However, some scholars believe bullying is a group function that includes many other roles. A more expansive list of bullying roles includes:
Bullies, bully-victims and victims are the most researched groups in medical literature, and they’re the most likely to experience side effects from bullying.
Source: Due, P. et al. (2005, March 8). Bullying and symptoms among school-aged children: international comparative cross sectional study in 28 countries.
Several factors put a person at an increased risk for being bullied. In general, individuals who are perceived to be different from the norm are at an increased risk. Differences could include being overweight or underweight, being new to a school or workplace or having a lower socio-economic status than others.
Additionally, people who have low self-esteem, have few friends or have mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety are at an increased risk of being bullied. Evidence also shows that LGBTQ+ individuals and people with disabilities have a higher risk of being bullied.
“Individuals who are victims tend to have depression, anxiety or somatic concerns, which are physical symptoms with no known physical cause, like tummy aches or headaches,” Crothers said.
People who bully often fall into one of two categories. Some bullies have social power and seek pleasure by dominating others. Other bullies are isolated and may experience depression, anxiety or low self-esteem before and after engaging in bullying.
“Individuals who are victims tend to have depression, anxiety or somatic concerns, which are physical symptoms with no known physical cause, like tummy aches or headaches.”
“There are a number of mental health conditions that are associated with bullying behavior,” Crothers said. “They include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.”
The more risk factors a person has, the more likely they are to bully or to be bullied.
Bullying takes many forms. One-time fights and lighthearted joking usually don’t meet the criteria for bullying. If the behavior is intentional, repeated and involves a power imbalance, then it’s probably bullying.
Researchers identify bullying behavior as:
Victimization behavior includes:
Bullying behavior usually falls into three categories: verbal, social and physical.
Verbal bullying includes saying or writing things that are meant to cause harm. It can occur face-to-face or via phone call, text, social media or other mediums. Regardless of the medium, verbal bullying may include:
What begins as name-calling or teasing can lead to other forms of bullying, such as talking about someone behind their back or fighting.
Social bullying involves damaging a person’s reputation or relationships. It usually occurs behind the person’s back, in front of groups of people or online. Social bullying includes:
The goal of social bullying is usually to put others down or to gain social power. Social bullying may also occur because the bully wants to maintain his or her social status.
Physical bullying is the easiest to recognize. It involves causing physical damage to a person or their property.
Physical bullying includes:
The visible side effects of physical bullying can include black eyes, bruises or scars, but physical bullying also causes psychological side effects. Like verbal or social bullying, the goal of physical bullying is to make the victim and others believe the bully has power.
The purpose, intent and consequences of bullying haven’t changed, but a new medium has amplified its effects. Name-calling, shaming or rumor-spreading that once involved a handful of people can now involve entire schools, workplaces or communities if conducted online.
Cyberbullying involves bullying behavior conducted through computers, cellphones, tablets and other electronic devices. Cyberbullying can occur via text message, email, social media, online forums and other electronic mediums. It’s become an increasingly common form of bullying among teenagers and adults.
A 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 88 percent of teens who use social media have observed others being mean or cruel on social networks.
Adults were less likely to observe the same behavior, but 69 percent said they had seen mean or cruel behavior on social media. The study found that 15 percent of teens and 13 percent of adults who used social media had been the victims of online meanness or cruelty in the past year.
The CDC’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that of the 15.5 percent of teens who were bullied electronically in the past year, 21.7 percent were female and 9.7 percent were male.
The CDC also reported different rates of cyberbullying among ethnic groups.
Cyberbullying can cause many of the same side effects as traditional bullying, and in some cases the side effects can be more severe.
All parties involved in bullying experience negative effects. In addition to physical injury, bullying can cause mental health issues such as behavioral problems and substance abuse. Victims experience several side effects, and any pre-existing conditions they have can deteriorate.
Bullies often suffer from mental health problems before they begin bullying. It isn’t clear whether those pre-existing conditions make them more likely to use drugs and experience mental health problems in the future, or if the act of bullying increases their risk for drug use and mental health problems.
A 2001 study published in Aggressive Behavior found that bullies and bully-victims were more likely than students who weren’t involved in bullying to have psychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit disorder, depression or a conduct disorder. It also found that victims were more likely to have psychiatric disorders, but not as likely as bullies and bully-victims.
Similarly, a 2009 study of middle school and high school students published in Addictive Behaviors found that bullies and bully-victims were much more likely than victims and students who weren’t involved in bullying to consume alcohol or other drugs. In that study, victims were slightly more likely than noninvolved students to use alcohol or other drugs.
Bystanders are also likely to experience negative side effects from observing bullying. Outsiders and reinforcers can exacerbate side effects that victims experience, and defenders can prevent side effects by sticking up for victims of bullying.
The media often links suicide to bullying, but studies haven’t revealed a strong association between suicidal thoughts and bully victimization. Recent research indicates that cyberbullying may increase the risk of suicide more than traditional bullying, but bullying is one of a number of risk factors that contribute to suicide risk.
Other risk factors for suicide include depression, exposure to trauma and problems at home. Overall, experts believe that bullying can make a bad situation worse, but it isn’t the sole cause of suicidal thoughts.
Media reports also link victims of bullying to violent behavior. This link does appear to be strong when bullying is severe. In a 2004 U.S. Department of Education and Secret Service report on violence in schools, researchers found that 29 of the 37 attackers involved in targeted school violence incidents from 1974 to 2000 felt bullied, threatened or attacked before the incident.
The authors of the report noted that very few students who are bullied act out violently, but the attackers that they examined had been bullied to the point of torment. If the bullying that they endured had occurred in a workplace, they would meet the legal definitions of harassment or assault, the authors wrote.
Youth who lack social skills are common victims of bullying, and bullying often makes it even harder for them to make friends and develop relationships. There’s also evidence that youth avoid their bullied peers to prevent being bullied themselves, making the victim’s feeling of loneliness worse.
Children who are bullied are more likely to experience:
Despite a wealth of research on the topic, the relationship between being bullied and using alcohol and other drugs is still a mystery to scholars.
“Researchers have found that victims are less likely to use substances, and other research has shown victims were more likely to use cigarettes and alcohol,” Crothers said. “Another study suggested that those who were engaging in alcohol, cigarette, marijuana or inhalant use were more likely to be victims than others.”
Overall, victims of bullying are more likely than other students to have lower self-esteem. They may also become afraid of going to school or work, making it difficult for them to achieve academic or financial success.
Several studies indicate that people who bully others are more likely to have feelings of depression, anxiety or low self-esteem. Their parents tend to be less involved in their lives, and they tend to have friends who bully others. They usually become frustrated easily and turn to violence to solve their problems.
The act of bullying can worsen existing psychological problems or lead to new problems, including:
“After individuals have engaged in bullying, they are likely to be depressed,” Crothers said. “The thought is that it is such a maladaptive way of interacting with others that it doesn’t truly meet your needs or help you.”
Bullies do not always possess psychological issues, and they aren’t always bigger or stronger than their peers. They may be more popular or smarter than the people they bully. They may value social power, but bullying does little to help them feel better about themselves.
Many health experts believe bully-victims are at the highest risk for mental health and substance abuse problems. They have social issues similar to victims, but they also struggle to succeed in school like bullies.
Bully-victims can experience the same risks and consequences as traditional bullies or victims.
It isn’t clear if they bully others because they were bullied first, or if bullying others made them more vulnerable to being bullied by a third party. Evidence indicates that some bullies are eventually bullied back as acts of retaliation.
Bystanders can fall into a number of categories, including outsiders, defenders and reinforcers. Research isn’t clear on the consequences or risks associated with defending a victim or reinforcing the behavior of a bully.
It is clear that children and teens who witness bullying have an increased risk of:
Thus, the effects of bullying are not limited to bullies, victims and bully-victims.
Cyberbullying is a relatively new type of bullying, but it has drastically changed how people bully others and how victims experience bullying. Limited research indicates that the psychological side effects of cyberbullying may be more severe than traditional bullying.
“We don’t have as many years studying cyberbullying as we do with traditional bullying,” Crothers said. “Cyberbullying seems to affect people similarly to traditional bullying, but the risk of suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior seems to be even greater in those who are cyberbullied.
“Some of the thinking about that is that cyberbullying has such an incredible reach,” Crothers explained. “You cannot escape it in the way that you can escape traditional bullying behavior. People can interact with you at home when you’re away from school. It seems to be associated with a particular level of depression, anxiety or desperation that it seems to render victims more vulnerable to suicidal ideation or behavior.”
Early evidence also shows that cyberbullying increases risk of substance abuse. A 2011 study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that about 4.5 million youth aged 12 to 17 — a group representing 19 percent of American adolescents — had been cyberbullied.
Teens who spent more time online were more likely to be cyberbullied. Girls (25 percent) were much more likely to be cyberbullied than boys (14 percent), and teens who were cyberbullied were more than twice as likely to have used tobacco, alcohol or marijuana.
|Teens Who Were Not Cyberbullied||Teens Who Were Cyberbullied|
Additionally, 12 percent of teens who were cyberbullied said they were likely to try drugs in the future, compared to 7 percent of teens who were not cyberbullied.
Other studies have produced different results.
A 2013 study of adolescents in Spain found that students who were cyberbullied were more likely to experience symptoms of depression, but they were not significantly more likely to use alcohol or other drugs. However, teens who abused drugs were more likely to be cyberbullied. Additionally, bully-victims were more likely to experience psychological and behavioral health problems, including substance abuse.
No research explains how bullying affects the risk of relapse among people in recovery from addiction, but the psychological side effects of bullying are risk factors for relapse. Two celebrity parents found that out in the worst way when their daughter relapsed and died from a drug overdose after being cyberbullied.
Victoria Siegel’s Story
Victoria Siegel, the daughter of real estate mogul David Siegel and former Mrs. Florida Jackie Siegel, had attended rehab for addiction and was striving to stay sober when she began being cyberbullied by her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. She relapsed and overdosed on a combination of methadone, an opioid painkiller, and sertraline, a drug used to treat depression and anxiety.
In a statement, the family said: “The ex-girlfriend of Victoria’s boyfriend used his phone to send cruel and hateful text messages using the boyfriend’s phone. These messages were sent early on the morning of Victoria’s death. These messages were clearly intended to hurt Victoria and, while we cannot be sure, may have affected her emotional state at a time when she was emotionally vulnerable.”
TMZ also reported that Victoria experienced cyberbullying on social media. The death was ruled an accidental overdose. In an interview with DrugRehab.com, David Siegel said he had committed his life to combatting addiction and stigma associated with substance abuse.
Bullying can happen anywhere, but children are most likely to be bullied when adults aren’t present. The most common places are settings that children can’t avoid, such as the walk to a school bus, on the bus or in the hallways between classes.
Bullying can also occur in other locations, including:
Young people used to be able to avoid bullying by taking a different route home from school or avoiding risky places in their neighborhood. But now they can experience bullying everywhere they go via the internet. Cyberbullying can occur on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, dating apps and a number of other social media networks. They can’t simply delete their accounts to avoid bullying because bullies can still spread rumors and embarrassing photos or videos with the click of a button.
Children aren’t the only ones who bully. Parents can bully other parents, teachers and children. Adults can be bullied in college, the workplace, in community groups or in their neighborhood.
In a high profile incident, the NFL revealed that Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin was bullied by three teammates, one of whom can be characterized as the lead bully and two who appeared to be reinforcers. Martin was subjected to racial slurs, sexual taunts and physical abuse, according to the NFL report.
Martin quit the team in October 2013 to undergo psychiatric counseling for emotional problems. Other members of the team, including a trainer, were also bullied by the players, but their names were not revealed by the NFL.
Professional sports isn’t the only place that workplace bullying occurs. A 2014 survey by VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company based in Provo, Utah, found that 96 percent of respondents have experienced workplace bullying. Physical bullying was rare, but social and verbal bullying were common.
After the results of the survey were revealed, The Guardian set out to shed light on workplace bullying. Readers from across the world shared their stories with the news outlet, including:
Workplace bullying can occur any time the bully feels he or she has a power advantage over a co-worker.
Several theories explain why people bully others. The most common beliefs are that children bully other children because they think it will help them fit in or make other people like them. It may make them feel better about themselves, they may copy their friends’ bullying behavior or they might have a grudge against the person they’re bullying.
“People bully for status elevation,” Crothers said. “They bully to have greater access to resources than a victim.”
Resources could be physical items such as money or other valuables or immaterial resources such as attention from peers or adults.
“Bullies tend to want to either ascend a dominance hierarchy or they want to maintain a position in a dominance hierarchy,” Crothers said. “The thought is that individuals who are ascending or maintaining a position in the dominance hierarchy have access to things that victims do not.”
But victims of bullying do not have to suffer alone. Help and resources are available.
Bullies want you to feel helpless. They want you to believe that they can control you, but you can control your life. Every state has passed a law prohibiting bullying, and most states have developed school policies for preventing bullying. But educators, parents, employers or police can’t stop bullying if they don’t know about it.
That’s why bullies want you to believe that telling someone makes you weak. In fact, they’re afraid of being held accountable for their actions. If you’re being bullied, you have to tell someone. If you’re being bullied in school, tell a teacher, coach, administrator or school resource officer. If you’re being bullied at work, tell your supervisor or human resources representative.
If you’re being cyberbullied, save text messages and emails or take screenshots of the harassment. You can also protect yourself from some forms of cyberbullying by making your social media accounts private or blocking other users.
Despite the myth that a bully will back down if you stand up to him or her, you shouldn’t retaliate against a bully. You could be held accountable for breaking rules or laws, and you could end up becoming a bully yourself.
If you think someone is being bullied, you should try to talk to them about it. Let them know that there are people who care about them and that they don’t deserve to be treated unfairly. Empower them to take control of their life and report the bully or bullies.
“It’s really important to help them establish alternative peer networks,” Crothers said. “For example, if they’re being bullied at school, make sure that they’re very involved in other social activities in which they can experience peer success. That might be clubs, activities or sports.”
Some people may deny that they’re being bullied out of shame or embarrassment. If your son or daughter is being bullied but they won’t talk to you about it, you should seek the advice of a mental health professional.
“If you are a parent of a child who is bullying or who is being bullied, I would suggest that you seek out counseling services,” Crothers said. “I think family counseling is very helpful regarding this issue. There is evidence that suggests that there may be family patterns that contribute to engaging in bullying or to being a victim of bullying.”
In addition to seeking help, you should report your concerns to authorities if you believe your child or someone you care about is being bullied.
If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 911. If violence or sexual harassment is occurring, report the crimes to law enforcement. Otherwise, it may be more appropriate to work through school or workplace policies to address bullying.
In schools, educators and administrators are required to protect their students. Voice your concerns to a teacher that you trust, a school counselor or the principal. If they do not take your concerns seriously, contact the school’s superintendent, the school board or the state’s department of education.
If you believe the bullying is based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or religion, you can also contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights or the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
If you’re being bullied in the workplace, keep a record of every action the bully takes as well as the time and location. If you feel safe, talk to the bully about your feelings and assert that you won’t tolerate being bullied.
If you aren’t comfortable talking to the bully, or if that doesn’t work, report the incident to your manager or human resources representative. Most employers have policies against workplace bullying or harassment.
If your employer’s response isn’t satisfactory, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC may investigate your claim or try to mediate a resolution. It can also issue a right to sue letter, giving you the opportunity to file a harassment lawsuit.
At some point, you’ll need to determine whether your job is worth pursuing the administrative or legal processes or if you’d be happier searching for a new job.
If you’re being cyberbullied, you can take additional steps to prevent it from continuing. You can make your social media account private or block users on some websites or apps. You can also notify the social media site or app about the bullying.
Bullying often violates the terms and conditions that users agree to when they create social media accounts. Review the terms and conditions and then report how the person bullying you has violated them.
Keep in mind that bullying doesn’t have to occur at school or work to violate school or work policies. You can report cyberbullying to schools or employers. Take timestamped screenshots of bullying behavior online so you have evidence of hurtful messages, posts or images. If the cyberbullying violates a local or state law, you should report it to law enforcement.
Bullying doesn’t have to be an accepted part of life. Preventing this dangerous behavior begins with raising awareness and eliminating the stigma associated with reporting bullying.
In response to the overwhelming prevalence of bullying and the harm it is known to cause, several organizations have been created to combat the issue.
STOMP Out Bullying raises awareness to reduce bullying, cyberbullying and other forms of digital harassment. It provides educational programs on topics such as homophobia and racism. It hosts anti-bullying events and peer mentoring programs in communities. The organization also shares public service announcements and free information online.
It Gets Better is dedicated to teaching LBGTQ+ youth about preventing, avoiding and overcoming bullying. As part of the project’s mission, celebrities, activists and other supporters reach out to youth who have been bullied based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. They let youth know that people care about them and support them.
Founded by young women who had been bullied, the Kind Campaign raises awareness about the harms of girl-on-girl bullying. The organization creates documentaries, travels to schools and provides educational programming to teach youth.
The PACER National Bullying Prevention Center provides resources for children, families, educators and community members to learn about bullying. Resources include classroom toolkits, learning materials for families and an interactive website.
Bullying and substance abuse can cause long-lasting health problems, and the issues are often related. Counseling and therapy can heal many of the side effects of bullying and alcohol or drug use, but the ailments can be prevented through education, understanding and compassion.