Teen Bullying a Global Problem, Say Health Researchers

Posted: July 12, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: July 12, 2010 at 8:11 am

By Marjorie Musick

Kathryn Jacobsen. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Jacobsen

Bullying among teenagers is a global problem that can take a toll on teens’ health, Mason researchers have found.

In their ongoing work, Kathryn Jacobsen and Lila Fleming have examined the health effects of bullying in adolescent boys and girls from lower- and middle-income countries.

Jacobsen is an associate professor and Fleming is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Global and Community Health in the College of Health and Human Services. Fleming is also a PhD student in environmental science and policy.

They explain that bullying includes actions intended to harm or embarrass another person: teasing, spreading rumors, deliberately excluding them from group activities and using physical violence.

Their research was based on data from the Global School-Based Student Health Survey (GSHS), which was developed by the World Health Organization to assess self-reported student health and risk behaviors.

Lila Fleming. Photo courtesy of Lila Fleming

In their first study, which was published in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of School Health, the researchers examined the association between bullying and symptoms of depression among more than 8,000 Chilean middle school students in 2004.

Forty-seven percent of the teens reported having been bullied in the past month, and 30 percent said they had felt sad and hopeless for two or more weeks in the past year, which can be an indicator of depression.

In their second study, which was published in the March 2010 print edition of Health Promotion International, they explored the relationships between bullying, mental health and health behaviors in 104,614 teens 11 to 16 years old.

The data was collected from 19 low- and middle-income countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East between 2003 and 2006. Thirty-four percent of the students reported having been bullied in the last month and feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks in the last year.

In a third study underway, Jacobsen and Fleming are analyzing data collected from 34 countries to see if parental involvement in their children’s lives affects the likelihood of their children being bullied. So far, Tajikistan is the only country reporting less than 20 percent of children being bullied.

Bullying is more common among boys and diminishes with age, the researchers found. Microsoft photo

According to Fleming, only a handful of studies have been conducted in low- and middle-income countries, defined by the World Bank as countries with a per capita gross national income of less than $11,544.

“You can find hundreds of studies on developed nations like the United States or in Europe, but almost nothing from developing countries. So this was a really new area to explore in regard to bullying,” says Fleming.

“Our study shows that bullying is not just a problem in high-income countries like the United States, but is common among adolescents across the globe. What is important from a global health perspective is that even though developing nations have similar problems to those in developed nations, the ways we address those issues in a lower-income country may be completely different compared to how we do it in higher-income nations.”

In most countries surveyed, boys were more likely than girls to report being bullied, and the prevalence of bullying diminished as students aged.

Being a victim of bullying was generally associated with symptoms of depression, including feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks, and experiencing loneliness, sleeplessness and suicidal thoughts.

Teens who were victimized also had a higher risk of poor health behaviors, such as using tobacco, alcohol and drugs, as well as engaging in sexual activity.

These risk behaviors are associated with negative health effects, and other studies confirm that victims of bullying commonly experience physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches and nausea.

“Our studies highlight the significant impact of peer victimization on both mental health and physical health,” says Jacobsen.

“Victims of bullying engage in riskier health behaviors, and they have a reduced mental health status. The key message is that bullying affects both mental and physical health, and it influences health and risk behavior.

“It is easy to dismiss the impact of bullying on children with aphorisms like ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ But this study shows that peer victimization, whether emotional or physical, does in fact hurt children.

“Parents, educators and lawmakers should not assume that bullying is a ‘normal’ part of growing up. Taking steps to protect children and young adolescents from bullying will improve student health and learning.”

Support for this study was provided by George Mason University.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu