Research Spotlight - Rethinking Childhood Bullying

Duke Psychiatry InvestigatorWilliam Copeland, PhD

William E. Copeland, PhD is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. His research seeks to understand how stress in childhood affects risk for mental and physical health problems across development: Who is at risk when exposed to which experiences at which point in development? Who is resilient in the face of adversity and why? How does stress “get under the skin” and increase risk for other health problems?

His most recent study, published in JAMA in February 2013, examined the psychological effects of childhood bullying. Dr. Copeland and his team of researchers at Duke found that childhood bullying causes direct and long-lasting effects into adulthood, the worst of which occur for those who were both victims and bullies. This groundbreaking finding was widely cited in international, national, local news, including the New York Times, TIME, CNN, US News and World Report, the BBC, the CBC and NPR. 
The study followed 1,270 North Carolina children over 20 years into adulthood. Beginning at ages of 9, 11, and 13, the kids were interviewed annually until the age of 16, and then they were interviewed multiple times in subsequent years. Dr. Copeland and his team divided their subjects into three groups: 1) People who were victims as children, 2) people who were bullies, and 3) people who were both, or “bully-victims.” Bully-victims tended to have the most serious psychological problems as kids, and they also exhibited higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts as adults. Victims were also at heightened risk for depression and anxiety in adulthood, and bullies were more likely to have an antisocial personality disorder. “It was definitely the case that being bullied led to worse outcomes, but kids that were both bullies and victims had the worst long-term prognosis,” Dr. Copeland explains. 
Dr. Copeland's research has caused mental health experts and parents to rethink childhood bullying, especially with the widespread use of social media among school age children and teens. “Consider me a reluctant convert,” shares Dr. Copeland, “but I’m starting to view bullying the same way I do abuse in the home. I honestly think the effects we’re observing here are just as potent. And that’s definitely not the way American researchers look at things. They want to know all about what parents are doing at home. Peers aren’t considered a priority. But these days, with all the time they spend on the Internet, kids are spending even more time with their peers, and that’s a factor we need to pay more attention to.”

In addition to the psychological impact, Dr. Copeland and his team of researchers published a follow-up study in Psychological Science this past August demonstrating bullying’s influence on factors such as health, wealth, and social-relationship outcomes in adulthood. They are continuing to explore the underlying stress systems involved in bullying so that we can better understand, and work to prevent, the psychological and social consequences of these negative childhood experiences.

So, what can parents or teachers do to discourage bullying? “In terms of prevention,” Dr. Copeland shares, “we already have school-based bullying prevention programs that are both feasible and effective. The programs that are most effective typically involve parent meetings, firm disciplinary methods, and improved playground supervision. Effective programs, however, must involve school personnel, parents and students working together. It is critical for parents to talk with their children about what is happening at school and how they are getting along with their peers,” he urges.

If you need assistance in talking with a child about bullying, the National PTA websiteprovides helpful anti-bullying resources for parents and caregivers.

Past Research Spotlights

  • Summer 2013- Wei Jiang, MD, The Mind-Heart Connection: Stress and Heart Health
  • Spring 2013- Sarah H. Lisanby, MD & Andrew Krystal, MD, Hope for the Future: The Promise of Deep TMS for Treatment Resistant Depression
  • Fall 2012 - Dan Blazer, MD, PhD, The Mental Health and Substance Use Workforce for Older Adults: In Whose Hands?
  • Spring 2012 - John Curry, PhD, Onset of alcohol or substance use disorders following treatment for adolescent depression
  • Winter 2012 - Joanna Maselko, ScD, Religious service attendance and major depression: a case of reverse causality?
  • Fall 2011 - Kathleen Hayden, PhD, Cognitive decline in the elderly: an analysis of population heterogeneity