The impact of bullying on mental health

March 12, 2021

There has been a lot of conversation in the media lately about bullying and the damaging impact it can have on mental health.  Bullying is defined as the unwanted, aggressive behavior that presents in an engagement with another individual or individuals that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Thinking back, most people can probably identify a time when they experienced bullying and how it made them feel. Bullying happens everywhere: schools, workplace, friend groups, online, and it’s important to remember it does not just happen to children.

With the technological world that we have moved in to, access to bullying has grown significantly. Cyberbullying, which refers to being bullied online or through digital devices and can happen through text messages, social media apps, gaming chats and platforms, and pretty much anywhere people view and share content. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, data shows that an estimated 15.7% of high school students were electronically bullied in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Just because many of us are going to school or working from home doesn’t mean the bullying has stopped. The pandemic has led to youth being connected significantly more than before to their digital devices. For some, digital contact has been the only way they have communicated within the past year. L1ght, an organization that tracks online harassment, is reporting that cyberbullying has increased 70% in just the past few months.

The effects of bullying have serious and lasting negative impacts on our mental health and overall wellbeing. Bullying can cause feelings of rejection, exclusion, isolation, low self-esteem, and some individuals can develop depression and anxiety as a result. In some cases it can even develop into Acute Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Research has shown that being a victim of bullying can lead to longer term impacts including interpersonal violence, substance use, sexual violence, poor social functioning, and poor performance. Even witnessing bullying can impact one’s wellbeing.

Being bullied at a young age can affect someone well past childhood and can cause lifelong psychological damage. During these young years, children are identifying roles, developing personalities, and figuring out who they are. When a young person is bullied, it can lead to problems with trust in others, self-esteem, and anger. It can be hard to develop relationships with others at an older age when you may not have had any at a younger age. When we’re repeatedly presented with blows about who we are or what we are doing, we create a poor self-image and expect that others see us in the same light.

Bullying often leaves us with lingering feelings, turning into anger towards others or ourselves. When one goes through bullying over a long period of time, they may begin to blame themselves for being bullied. Thinking thoughts such as “If I wasn’t so ugly, people would leave me alone,” or “If I tried harder, people wouldn’t make fun of me.” The types of thoughts can change how we see and feel about ourselves and leave long-term impacts.

If you are a parent to a digital teen and you are working from home, you are spending more time than ever with your children. We have a great opportunity to be mindful of what our youth are doing online and how these interactions with others may be affecting them. Create rules on internet use that limits screen time. This can be challenging, since those of us working from home are stuck to screens all day, but these rules can help create a balance around positive, healthy social time and engaging in other activities that make them less likely to engage in cyberbullying. Allow youth to stay connected with others through positive engagement, such as Facetime or weekly Zoom chats that can help balance connectivity. It is very difficult for children and teens to not be connected to others, as these connections are necessary for growth and development. Have open communication and ensure your children know they can talk to you about what is going on in their lives.

If you are concerned that you or your child are experiencing lingering feelings from the results of bullying, it may be helpful to connect with a mental health professional to identify concerns and negative thinking patterns that may still be present. The STOMP Out Bullying HelpChat Line is a free confidential online chat that helps youth ages 13-24 with issues around bullying and cyberbullying. If you are interested in reading about bullying statistics here is a great resource: Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center

Written by: Meaghan Warner, LCSW-S