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Harm can continue even after bullying stops

| Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Intervening early to stop bullying is important because the health effects — including persistent anxiety, depression and impaired self-worth — can persist even after bullying stops, a study shows.

The study examines “how the effects of bullying can compound over time or snowball” by focusing on students' past and present bullying experiences, said Laura Bogart, a social psychologist at Boston Children's Hospital and lead author of the study. It is in the March issue of Pediatrics and published online on Monday.

Using surveys collected from 4,300 public school students in Houston, Los Angeles and Birmingham, Ala., researchers found that 22 percent of students reported being bullied in the fifth grade. As in other studies, the likelihood of being bullied declined as students got older, with 5 percent reporting being victimized in the seventh grade and 3 percent reporting it in the 10th grade.

The analysis shows that students who reported both past and current bullying scored significantly worse on various health measures, followed by those who reported being bullied in the present only, then those bullied in the past only and those reporting no history of being bullied.

For example, on measures of:

• Psycho-social health (such as anger, fear and anxiety), 45 percent of 10th-graders bullied in both the past and present scored low compared with 31 percent of those bullied in the present only, 12 percent of those bullied in the past only and 7 percent of those never bullied.

• Depression, 30 percent of 10th-graders bullied in the past and present exhibited the worst symptoms, compared with 19 percent of those bullied in the present only, 13 percent of those bullied in the past only and 8 percent never bullied.

• Self-worth, 29 percent of 10th-graders bullied in the past and present had the lowest scores, compared with 20 percent of those bullied only in the present; 12 percent of those bullied only in the past and 8 percent who were not bullied.

• Physical health (such as a student's comfort with playing sports and being physically active), 30 percent of seventh-graders bullied in both the past and present scored low compared with 24 percent of those bullied in the present only, 15 percent of those bullied in the past only and 6 percent of those never bullied.

In 10th grade, 22 percent of those bullied in both the past and present scored low on physical health, compared with 26 percent of those bullied in the present only, but those two percentages are not statistically different, Bogart says.

“The results still support the general pattern of more recent and chronic bullying being related to worse health, as compared to kids who are not bullied or bullied in the past only,” she said.

They also reinforce the importance of intervention to stop bullying and the need to intervene again, even if the bullying is not ongoing, to address the persistent effects, Bogart said.

“Every adult who's involved in a child's life needs to be aware that bullying is out there,” she said. “It really can put a child on a downward trajectory with their health over time, so adults need to look for the signs.”

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