How Bullying Affects Lifelong Mental Health

Bullying is defined as repeated “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children” that involves a “real or perceived power imbalance”—when kids use their physical strength, popularity, or knowledge of embarrassing information to negatively influence others.

It’s a tale as old as time—and unfortunately, bullying remains pervasive in the school system. According to a 2011 Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency survey, more than half of Pennsylvania students reported that other students had spread false rumors about them. Almost 20 percent of male students reported having been physically bullied, while 38.2 percent of female students reported non-physical forms of bullying.

And now with the Internet and social media, there is an increase in cyberbullying,  which involves using electronic communication to distribute harmful messages. Cyberbullying can occur on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and also through text messaging and email. Online bullies have the ability to hide their identify and can bombard victims with anonymous messages 24 hours a day.

Most victims who are bullied online are also bullied in person and have a harder time escaping the taunting.

Bullying and Children’s Mental Health

For people who brush off playground altercations or name-calling as “kids will be kids,” it’s crucial to understand that childhood bullying—whether in person or online—has been linked to a range of serious and long-lasting effects. Researchers have found a connection between bullying and poorer mental and physical health, as well as increased symptoms of depression and lower self-esteem.

These impacts reach beyond the victims of bullying. Bullies themselves are negatively affected. According to the National Institutes of Health, children and adolescents who are bullies are at increased risk of depression, substance abuse, academic problems, and violence to others.

These mental health effects can last for the rest of their lives. The Association for Psychological Science recently found that bullying victims and instigators are “more likely to experience poverty, academic failure, and job termination in their adulthood than those who were neither.”

Even bystanders—those who witness bullying but are not directly involved—are affected. According to, bystanders are likely to have increased mental health problems and miss or skip school.

Warning signs

Concerned that your child is facing bullying? Keep an eye out for these warning signs:

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed possessions
  • Frequently feeling sick or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits (kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch)
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or going to school
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors

On the other hand, could your child be the bully? Look for these signs:

  • Getting into physical or verbal fights
  • Becoming friends with others who are bullying
  • Becoming increasingly aggressive
  • Getting sent to detention or the principal’s office frequently
  • Having unexplained money or other belongings
  • Not taking the blame for his or her problems
  • Not accepting responsibility for his or her actions
  • Worrying about reputation or popularity

If any of these warning signs is ringing a bell, act now. You have an important role to play in helping your children understand bullying, learn their rights, and learn to stand up for themselves. Keep communication lines open through regular check-ins, and encourage your children to engage in activities and hobbies that will help them make friends and boost their confidence.