People who were bullied throughout childhood and adolescence are more likely than others to engage in delinquent or criminal behavior later in life, a new study finds.
In the new research, scientists found that about 14 percent of those who reported suffering repeated bullying through their childhood and teenage years — up to 18 years of age — wound up serving time in prison as adults. In comparison, 6 percent of people who did not experience bullying ended up in prison.
"Most studies focus on a relatively narrow period of the life course, but I looked at victimization from birth to age 18 and then associated that with legal outcomes — whether they got involved with substance abuse, got arrested, convicted or were sent to incarceration," said Michael Turner, an associate professor in the department of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
Turner is presenting the findings today (Aug. 1) at the American Psychological Association's 121st Annual Convention, which is being held from July 31 to Aug. 4 in Honolulu.
Bullying and crime
In his analysis, Turner found that compared with nonbullied individuals, victims of bullying had higher rates of criminal conviction. More than 20 percent of those who were bullied throughout childhood and adolescence were convicted of crimes, compared with 11 percent of nonvictims. Sixteen percent of individuals who experienced childhood bullying, up to age 12, were convicted of crimes, with 13 percent of victims who were bullied during adolescence (from age 12 to 18) experiencing similar legal outcomes later in life.
"Being victimized at any point in time was associated with higher odds of delinquency, substance abuse, arrests and convictions in late adolescence and adulthood," Turner told LiveScience. "But chronic victims — those who were bullied in childhood and adolescence — had the highest odds of adverse legal outcomes."
Previous studies have found relationships between young people who bully others and delinquent behavior later in life, but Turner's study shows that victims of bullying can also be negatively affected in the long run.
"Most studies found bullying and offenders are associated with higher crime," Turner said. "I found support that being a victim is also associated with adverse legal outcomes. Most research hasn't found this relationship."
For the study, Turner relied on data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The survey included 7,335 people reflective of U.S. demographics, who were ages 12 to 16 as of Dec. 31, 1996.
Turner separated the individuals into four groups: nonvictims (74 percent of survey respondents); those who suffered bullying before age 12 (15 percent); those who were bullied after age 12 (6 percent); and those who experienced bullying during childhood and adolescence (5 percent).
The youths were followed over a 14-year period, and victimization reports were collected over several periods. Criminal incidents were assessed when the survey participants were in their late teenage years or early adulthood.
The study did not account for severity of bullying and did not focus on the socioeconomic status of the respondents.
Through his analysis, however, Turner did identify some gender differences. "Majority of the significant gender differences tended to sway in favor of females being more adversely affected than males," Turner said. He found no significant differences across races and ethnicities.
What to do?
The results suggest bullying is particularly detrimental early in development.
"There are certainly prevention programs out there, for schools and parents, and if you don't deal with these problems early, they could turn into bigger problems," Turner said. "Early prevention is always a better outlook."
And despite relying on data that had been collected in the mid-'90s, Turner does not anticipate major differences had the survey been conducted among youth today.
"The method by which individuals are bullied now is quite a bit different than what existed then," Turner said. "Specifically, there's a lot more technology-based cyberbullying. The method is a little different, but it's still verbal, physical, emotional or psychological."
Turner plans to submit the research for peer review, prior to publication, at the end of this year's American Psychological Association meeting.
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Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.