Depression in Teens and Adolescents Linked to Bullying at School: How Can We Help?
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Many years ago, kids used to recite this chant when bullies taunted them. At the time, parents thought this was useful advice. Today, we know better. Words can hurt you. Some people never survive the lasting effects of the bullying they received as teenagers. Not surprisingly, depression and suicide are much more common among teens that have been victims of bullying at school or through social media. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in teens. Clearly more needs to be done to reduce bullying and the huge toll it takes on our teens and adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control offers some guidelines and statistics to help educate students, teachers, and parents.
Bullying is a big problem for teens all over the United States, the recent CDC study shows. How widespread is it? The findings of a survey conducted three years ago reveals some troubling statistics:
- In a 2013 nationwide survey, 20% of high school students reported being bullied on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey.
- An estimated 15% of high school students reported in 2013 that they were bullied electronically in the 12 months before the survey.
- During the 2012-2013 school year, 8% of public school students ages 12-18 reported being bullied on a weekly basis.
Sadly, numerous cases of bullying are never reported. Among boys, there may be a social stigma. They may feel even more powerless if they have to rely on adults to save or protect them from other kids. Or it may be more difficult for a depressed teenager to fight back, and some victims may rightly fear retaliation if they speak up or “squeal.” Some students have already learned the hard way that they cannot count on their schools to adequately protect them. In extreme cases, these kids have taken extreme measures for revenge, like the teenagers that brought guns to the Columbine shooting in Colorado.
Diagnosing the Problem
Is it time to make bullying a criminal offense? To underscore the seriousness of the issue in our schools, the CDC now labels bullying as a form of “youth violence.” The CDC defines the act this way:
- Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.
- Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.
- Bullying can include aggression that is physical (hitting, tripping), verbal (name calling, teasing), or relational/social (spreading rumors, leaving out of group). A young person can be a perpetrator, a victim, or both (also known as “bully/victim”).
- Bullying can also occur through technology and is called electronic aggression or cyber-bullying. Electronic aggression is bullying that occurs through e-mail, a chat room, instant messaging, a website, text messaging, or videos or pictures posted on websites or sent through cell phones.
The exposure to harm that many boys face is so common that it is one of the relatable issues addressed in the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. In the bestselling series, the cynical hero, Greg, a young adolescent, talks openly about the challenges of attending classes with kids that are dangerous and much bigger than he is. Greg says that if he had his way, classes would be assembled by physical size, not age. He calls some of his larger tormentors “gorillas,” and wonders why anyone is surprised that the diverse mix of teens in various stages of development produces these unfair situations.
There will always be mean kids. Unfortunately, with all of the options that the Internet offers, there are plenty of new inventive ways for cruel teens to torture their classmates, or even their teachers. Today, it’s very easy for almost anyone to put up a website or launch a media campaign against someone. In some cases, teachers have resigned after enterprising bullies launched websites that ridiculed them and severely compromised their authority in class.
Andrew Adesman, MD, a senior investigator in the study, compares the three primary forms of bullying this way: “Teens can be the victim of (1) face-to-face bullying in school, (2) electronic bullying outside of the classroom, and (3) dating violence. Although cyber bullying may not pose the same physical threat that face-to-face bullying does, it can be far more hurtful since it can spread like wildfire throughout a student body and take on a life of its own.”
Greg, the fictional character in the Wimpy Kid books, might take some comfort in knowing that bullies don’t always fare so well later in life. Here’s a comparison between victims, bullies, and kids that are both bullies and victims.
Victims have an increased risk for
- sleep difficulties,
- poor school adjustment
Kids that bully others have an increased risk for
- substance use
- academic problems
- violence later in adolescence and adulthood
Kids that are victims and also bullies are at greater risk for
- mental health disorders
- behavior problems
Different Factors for Boys and Girls
While boys may worry about the risk of getting beaten up, girls who struggle with eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder, bulimia, or anorexia, often cite body shaming taunts and weight stigma as the reasons they developed their disorders. As Dr. Adesman insists, “Effective strategies need to be developed to eliminate bullying if we want our teens to be safe and enjoy their adolescence.”
To address our current bullying crisis, the CDC outlines a four-step approach:
Step 1: Define and monitor the problem
Before we can prevent bullying, we need to know how big the problem is, where it is, and who it affects. CDC learns about a problem by gathering and studying data. This data is critical because it helps us know where prevention is most needed.
Step 2: Identify risk and protective factors
It is not enough to know that bullying is affecting a certain group of people in a certain area. We also need to know why. CDC conducts and supports research to answer this question. We can then develop programs to reduce or get rid of risk factors and increase protective factors.
Step 3: Develop and test prevention strategies
Using information gathered in research, CDC develops and tests strategies to prevent bullying.
Step 4: Ensure widespread adoption
In this final step, CDC shares the best prevention strategies. CDC may also provide funding or technical help so communities can adopt these strategies.
Protecting the Victims
Certain kids are targeted more than others. The CDC found that some of the factors associated with a higher likelihood of victimization include:
- Poor peer relationships
- Low self-esteem
- Perceived by peers as different or quiet
Identifying the Bullies
Different issues can increase a teen’s potential risk of becoming a bully. Some of the factors associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in bullying behavior include:
- Externalizing problems, such as defiant and disruptive behavior
- Harsh parenting by caregivers
- Attitudes accepting of violence
What Can You Do?
The ultimate goal is to stop bullying before it starts. Talk to your teen. Talk to your school. Do they have an anti-bullying program? Does it work? School-based bullying prevention programs are becoming common, but often, they are not fully evaluated. The CDC recommends these essential goals for school programs:
- Improving supervision of students
- Using school rules and behavior management techniques in the classroom and throughout the school to detect and address bullying by providing consequences for bullying
- Having a whole school anti-bullying policy, and enforcing that policy consistently
- Promoting cooperation among different professionals and between school staff and parents
Is Your Teen hiding out, or Acting Out? Act Now!
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CDC: Understanding bullying. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
Science Daily: Bullying Leads to Depression and Suicidal Thoughts in Teens. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
Medical News Today: Victims Of Bullying At Increased Risk Of Anxiety Disorders And Depression Later On, by Joseph Nordqvist. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney. Retrieved September 27, 2016.