Dieter Wolke is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Division of Mental Health & Wellbeing at the University of Warwick, UK. His research focuses on social and emotional development, specifically school and sibling bullying.
Below is a Q&A with Wolke on his recent study in Psychological Science, Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcomes.
I found the gender differences between bully groups to be intriguing. Could you elaborate on those findings?
Our paper is concerned with the relationship of childhood experience of bullying (victim, bully, bully-victim) and adult outcomes. We included sex (gender) as one factor to control for in the analysis, i.e., to make sure that sex was not a third factor that explained the relationship between bullying involvement and later outcome. Indeed, sex was a significant co-variate. Males did more poorly in their health, wealth and were more often involved in risky or illegal behavior across groups. This is consistent with general studies that females are outscoring males at school, in employment, and less likely to engage in risky behavior. Male bully-victims also had poorer social relationships with parents or friends.
In our paper we did not look at gender differences in bullying involvement as this was not the focus of the study. However, there is some evidence that both males and females use both direct (physical, verbal) or indirect (relational, social exclusion) means of bullying. Males tend to use direct means slightly more often and females use slightly more relational or indirect means, which could be through damaging others’ social relationships by spreading rumors and such.
You found that all groups showed signs of having difficulty forming social relationships and maintaining long-term friendships. Did you also investigate marital satisfaction or divorce rates? If so, what did you find? If not, do you think there’s any relationship between being bullied and lower or higher marital satisfaction?
Yes, we looked at whether the young adults (by 25 years of age) were married or divorced, had children themselves and interviewed them about the quality of relationships with romantic partners, in particular whether those relationships were violent. In the crude analysis we found that bullies were more likely to have violent partner relationships. However, once we took family hardships (including violent relationships with parents) or child psychiatric problems (including child conduct disorder) into account, this difference disappeared. Thus, the effects were explained by other family and childhood factors, rather than being a bully.
There is some suggestion in the literature that bullying in childhood is related to interpersonal violence in partner relationship in adulthood — although this is often based on retrospective, cross-sectional or very short term longitudinal studies that could not control for other factors. I think further good longitudinal studies are needed to answer this more comprehensively.
Is there a difference in outcomes depending on whether bullying was done online vs. face-to-face?
This study over a 16 year period did not separate between face to face and online or cyberbullying. The major reason was that cyberbullying was very rare in 1993 when the children in this study were recruited. Smart phones were not yet invented or available, few children had computers at home — thus cyberbullying was hardly possible. The interest in cyberbullying is relatively recent and was not separately assessed in our study.
However, recent evidence suggests that cyberbullying is mainly a new tool used by children who also bully the child face to face. Bullies are interested in the effect that bullying has on others and need an audience to enhance their status. Anonymous bullying of a target that is unknown and with nobody to watch it has little value from an evolutionary social dominance perspective. Cyberbullying appears to be another tool in the armory rather a new phenomenon. It does extend the reach of the bully to 24 hours a day.
Have a look at a recent critical discussion (Olweus, 2012).
Even though you looked only at peer bullying in this study, what effect do you think the same type of bullying might have if it comes from a sibling rather than a peer?
This is a very interesting question, one that we started to ask some years ago. Two previous cross-sectional studies that we conducted in Israel (Wolke & Samara, 2004) and the United Kingdom (Wolke & Skew, 2012a) found that sibling bullying or maltreatment is widespread. In particular, we found that children who were bullied by their sibling(s) at home (i.e., victims, bully-victims) were more much more likely to be also victims or bully-victims at school. Furthermore, we found that being bullied by siblings increased behavioral problems and decreased well-being (Wolke & Skew, 2012b). Children who are bullied by their siblings and at school have the highest rate of concurrent emotional and behavioral problems and are, in general, very unhappy. For these children, there is no respite from bullying after they come home from school — it is 24/7.
We currently have two longitudinal studies running in the UK looking at the issue of sibling bullying, and it looks like the same effects are found into late adolescence. We’ll keep you posted.
Have you ever looked at similar data from non-American children? If so, did bullying have the same longitudinal effect?
Yes, we have. In particular, we have been studying a cohort of children (around 14,000) whose mothers were enrolled during pregnancy in the United Kingdom, and we have now followed these children until the age of 18 years of age. The Avon Longitudinal Study of Children and Parents (ALSPAC) allows us to control for family and health factors from before the children were born (Suzet Tanya Lereya & Wolke, 2012) — thus excluding any reverse causality. We also have excellent measures of social factors, parenting, and schooling. We have found that children bullied in primary school (8-10 years of age) are more likely to develop depression in adolescence (Zwierzynska, Wolke, & Lereya, 2013) or borderline personality symptoms (Wolke, Schreier, Zanarini, & Winsper, 2012).
They are also more likely to think about or attempt suicide and to self-harm in adolescence (Winsper, Lereya, Zanarini, & Wolke, 2012) (Suzet Tanya Lereya, et al., 2013). We hope that the findings on the psychiatric outcome at 18 years of age are soon in press and sincerely hope to obtain funding to follow up this sample to assess its wealth and social relationships in adulthood. The findings in the UK regarding psychological outcome replicate those in the American cohort (Copeland, Wolke, Angold, & Costello, 2013). Because of the even larger sample size, we are also able to look at outcomes that are rare but highly disabling such as psychotic experiences. We found they are highly increased after being bullied (Schreier et al., 2009).
I am also involved in the UK Household Longitudinal Study (Understanding Society) that includes some 40,000 households, which allows for the investigation of additional potential factors, such as ethnicity, and their interaction with being bullied (Tippett, Wolke, & Platt, 2013). Within a year, we should have the first longitudinal data analyzed to see whether they replicate our previous findings.
Do you have any suggestions for how bullying can be more easily assessed and monitored?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (Atlanta) has compiled a compendium of assessment tools of bullying that is freely available http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/BullyCompendiumBk-a.pdf. It includes one of our measures, the School Relations Questionnaire or Peer and Friendship Interview (Wolke, Woods, Bloomfield, & Karstadt, 2000).
Time is often an issue, whether in research, at school or in the doctor’s practice. Bullying by peers can be validly and reliably assessed with 4 items (Tippett, 2013 #24860). It can be done face to face or via electronic means. We are currently conducting a survey with a panel of youths, parents, primary care physicians, and teachers about where they would be most likely to disclose bullying. Considering that up to 40% of children suffer in silence (i.e., never tell their parents or teachers), we need other routes for children to disclose and receive help. Bullying is not just a school problem, but a public health problem that needs addressing.
Do you have any future research planned on the subject of bullying?
Yes. There is now overwhelming evidence that being bullied has adverse effects on children’s health and well-being. Our recent study shows that it has wider effects on wealth and social relationships and thus even wider implications for the economy and society at large. Obviously, this recent work needs replication.
There are many questions that remain to be answered. Why are some children more likely to be bullied, and how early can we recognize this? We have recently brought together the research on parenting and bullying (how abusive but also over-protective parenting increases the risk of becoming a victim, for instance) (S T Lereya, Samara, & Wolke, in press) http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/04April/Pages/Bad-parenting-linked-with-kids-being-bullied.aspx#toggler-div.
Equally, are children who are born preterm more vulnerable? How does bullying affect mental or physical health, and what are the mechanisms — ranging from social cognition to biological processes — by which it does so? What makes some children resilient to the effects of bullying? By learning from children who show resilience, we can understand what may help other children to prevent the adverse effects of bullying. Most importantly, are there new and more effective means to engage children and parents in interventions? These might involve other places than schools and the use new media and virtual reality approaches (Wolke & Sapouna, 2012).
Copeland, W. E., Wolke, D., Angold, A., & Costello, E. (2013). Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(4), 419-426. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504
Lereya, S. T., Winsper, C., Heron, J., Lewis, G., Gunnell, D., Fisher, H. L., & Wolke, D. (2013). Being Bullied During Childhood and the Prospective Pathways to Self-Harm in Late Adolescence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(6), 608-618.e602.
Lereya, S. T., & Wolke, D. (2012). Prenatal family adversity and maternal mental health and vulnerability to peer victimisation at school. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, no-no. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12012
Sapouna, M., & Wolke, D. Resilience to bullying victimization: The role of individual, family and peer characteristics. Child Abuse & Neglect(0). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2013.05.009
Schreier, A., Wolke, D., Thomas, K., Horwood, J., Hollis, C., Gunnell, D., . . . Harrison, G. (2009). Prospective Study of Peer Victimization in Childhood and Psychotic Symptoms in a Nonclinical Population at Age 12 Years. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 66(5), 527-536. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.23
Tippett, N., Wolke, D., & Platt, L. (2013). Ethnicity and bullying involvement in a national UK youth sample. Journal of Adolescence, 36(4), 639-649. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.03.013
Winsper, C., Lereya, T., Zanarini, M., & Wolke, D. (2012). Involvement in Bullying and Suicide-Related Behavior at 11 Years: A Prospective Birth Cohort Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 51(3), 271-282.e273. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2012.01.001
Wolke, D., & Samara, M. M. (2004). Bullied by siblings: association with peer victimisation and behaviour problems in Israeli lower secondary school children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(5), 1015-1029.
Wolke, D., & Sapouna, M. (2012). FearNot! An innovative interdisciplinary virtual intervention to reduce bullying and victimization. In A. Costabile & B. Spears (Eds.), The Impact of Technology on Relationships in Educational Settings (pp. 169-177). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Wolke, D., Schreier, A., Zanarini, M. C., & Winsper, C. (2012a). Bullied by peers in childhood and borderline personality symptoms at 11 years of age: A prospective study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53(8), 846–855. doi: doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02542.x
Wolke, D., Woods, S., Bloomfield, L., & Karstadt, L. (2000). The association between direct and relational bullying and behaviour problems among primary school children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41(8), 989-1002.
Zwierzynska, K., Wolke, D., & Lereya, T. S. (2013). Peer Victimization in Childhood and Internalizing Problems in Adolescence: A Prospective Longitudinal Study. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 41(2), 309-323. doi: 10.1007/s10802-012-9678-8