We've long known about all of the shitty effects that being bullied has on a teenager's life in the moment—misery, isolation, and often even an increased risk of suicide. But new research is showing that being tormented or ostracized as a teenager can have effects on a person's health that stretch into middle age and beyond—and these long-range effects tend to be stronger in bullied girls than bullied boys. All the more reason to step in and teach the youth of today (and ourselves) to not be so unbelievably awful to one another.
A Swedish study followed almost 900 students in the country from age 16 until they were 43. They found overall that those who had a harder time socially in school—being bullied, left out, or even choosing to be isolated—had the highest risk of suffering from poor health by the time they were in their early 40s. They were more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol—in other words, metabolic syndrome. These effects were still seen even after their health at 16, their socioeconomic status, and other confounding factors were accounted for.
You might think it would require severe bullying or trauma to have that kind of long-lasting impact on someone, but, in fact, it did not. They found that it wasn't only the kids who were mercilessly bullied or victimized that suffered the health effects in middle age. Even those who experienced social isolation to a lesser degree saw health effects later, although the stronger their suffering as a teen, generally the worse their health was as an adult.
The researchers also found the health effect of bullying was slightly stronger in girls than it was in boys. It was not entirely clear why this was the case, but they suggest it could be because having peer problems could lead to "different life course pathways" in women than in men—whatever that even means. But basically, it's clear that for everyone involved, suffering at the hands of one's peers in adolescence had far-reaching and potentially serious effects.
There are plenty of reasons why being bullied would have such an impact. Having social problems can influence so many decisions that a kid makes and can affect things like academic performance. All of these things determine where a child ends up in life and how they take care of themselves in adulthood. But even after a lot of these factors were accounted for, the researchers still found a connection between health and having had problems with ones peer's as a teen. One likely explanation is that being bullied or otherwise suffering socially repeatedly activates a person's psychological stress system, and that has been associated in other research with an increase in metabolic syndrome.
Obviously, the consequences of all of this are serious—and that's not even taking into account the depression, anxiety, and other more immediate suffering that can be brought on by bullying. It's especially sad that behavior that a victim has no control over can end up impacting their health for the rest of their lives. The fact that an association is being seen between social suffer, even in its most mild form, as a teen and having poorer health as an adult should make it all the more clear that bullying is not something to take lightly.
Image via Sean Bolt/Shutterstock.