November 10, 2005

Psychological Distress Tied to Bullying

NEW YORK -- Elementary school children who are psychologically distressed -- they feel sad most days and feel as if they do not belong at school -- are more likely to be involved in some form of bullying, investigators have found.

Such children are prone to be a victim of bullying, a bully themselves, or a bully-victim -- someone who is both victimized and bullied others.

Children who struggle academically are also more likely to be victims or bully-victims, according to results of the survey of more than 3,500 third, fourth, and fifth graders attending an urban public school in one West Coast US city. The results of the survey appear in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine this month.

"The association between low achievement in school and bullying is concerning," Dr. Gwen M. Glew, from the University of Washington in Seattle, and leader of the study, told Reuters Health. "The primary mission of schools is to educate children. It is possible that bullying is getting in the way of that goal," she explained.

"However, this study does not allow us to say this for sure, given that it was cross-sectional," Glew emphasized. "Further, we don't know which came first: the bullying or the low achievement. Still, the association is concerning and suggests further work in this area is called for."

The fact that elementary school children involved in bullying feel sad most days is also worrisome for obvious reasons, Glew said. "Sadness is the key depression symptom. Bullying-involvement is associated with the key symptom of depression in this young population."

For the survey, investigators classified the children as victims, bullies, bully-victims, bystanders (children who did not bully others and were not bullied by others) and nonresponders.

Nearly one quarter of children surveyed (22 percent) reported being involved in bullying, either as a victim or bully, or both. Six percent said they were "always" bullied, 14 percent said they bullied others, and two percent said they bullied and were bullied. All of the children who were involved in bullying either as victim, bully or both were much more likely than bystanders to report feeling unsafe at school.

Among children who felt they didn't belong at school, their odds of being bullied were more than 4-fold higher than those who felt they belonged at school and their odds of being a bully themselves was 3-fold higher than those who felt a sense of belonging at school.

Boys were much more likely than girls to be bullies and bully-victims.

These data support anti-bullying curricula and other interventions in the elementary school grades, Glew and colleagues conclude.

SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, November 2005.