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Say No To Bullying! Increases Risks of Substance Abuse And Depression

Bullying in school has both short term and long term implications. Peer victimization is common during late childhood and early adolescence and appears to be associated with increased substance use or points to the psychological processes whereby peer victimization leads to substance use.

Say No To Bullying! Increases Risks of Substance Abuse And Depression

Bullying in school has both short term and long term implications. Peer victimization is common during late childhood and early adolescence and appears to be associated with increased substance use or point to the psychological processes whereby peer victimization leads to substance use.

Researchers from the University of Delaware studied data collected between 2004 and 2011 from 4,297 students on their journey from fifth through tenth grade. The students were from Birmingham, Alabama; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles County, California. Forty-four percent were Latino, 29 percent were African American and 22 percent were white.

They found that kids who are bullied in fifth grade often suffer from depression and begin using alcohol and other substances a few years after the incidents. The findings were published online in the medical journal Pediatrics.

"Students who experienced more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade were more likely to have greater symptoms of depression in seventh grade, and a greater likelihood of using alcohol, marijuana or tobacco in tenth grade," said the study's leader, Valerie Earnshaw, a social psychologist and assistant professor in UD's College of Education and Human Development.

Peer victimization leads to substance use, and substance use can harm adolescent development with implications for health throughout the lifespan, Earnshaw said. Alcohol and marijuana use may interfere with brain development and can lead to injuries. Tobacco use may lead to respiratory illness, cancer and early death.

"Youth who develop substance use disorders are at risk of many mental and physical illnesses throughout life," Earnshaw said. "So, the substance use that results from peer victimization can affect young people throughout their lives."

Among the study's findings, boys, sexual minority youth and youth living with chronic illness reported more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade. Age, obesity, race/ethnicity, household educational achievement and family income were not related to more frequent peer victimization.

Twenty-four percent of tenth graders in the study reported recent alcohol use, 15.2 percent reported marijuana use, and 11.7 percent reported tobacco use. Sexual minority status was more strongly related to alcohol use among girls than boys; it was also related to marijuana and tobacco use among girls but not boys.

"We urge pediatricians to screen youth for peer victimization, symptoms of depression and substance use," says Earnshaw. "These doctors can offer counsel to youth and recommendations to parents and youth for approaching teachers and school staff for support. Moreover, youth experiencing depressive symptoms and substance use should be offered treatment when needed."

The research team's messages also extend to teachers.

"Peer victimization really matters, and we need to take it seriously -- this echoes the messages educators already have been receiving," Earnshaw says. "This study gives some additional evidence as to why it's important to intervene. It also may give teachers insight into why students are depressed or using substances in middle and high school.

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