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Bullying in Elementary School Linked to Drug Abuse in High School

It's not as simple as a swirly.

Children who are bullied in fifth grade may be more likely to struggle with depression by seventh grade and substance abuse by tenth grade, according to a new study out of the University of Delaware. The researchers found only a statistically weak correlation between bullying and substance abuse, but the findings nonetheless suggest that being bullied is less of a harmless quirk of childhood than a traumatic experience, with potential long-term consequences.

“There’s still sometimes this idea that peer victimization and bullying are a normal part of adolescence and that lots of kids will experience it, so it’s fine,” Valerie Earnshaw, coauthor of the study, told Health Day. “But this study adds to a growing body of evidence that peer victimization and bullying are not fine.”

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Bullying

For the study, Earnshaw and colleagues collected data from 4,297 children in Birmingham, Houston, and Los Angeles between the years 2004 and 2011. They found that children who were bullied in the fifth grade were slightly more likely than others to report depressive symptoms by the seventh grade, and that those who reported depressive symptoms in the seventh grade were just a tad more likely than others to be involved with substance abuse by the tenth grade. Both correlations were relatively weak, with correlation coefficients between 0.06 and 0.19. In this statistical model, a perfect correlation would have a coefficient of 1, while anything less that 0.5 signifies a moderate or weak correlation.

Pediatrics Journal | Model of associations between peer victimization, depressive symptoms, and substance use.

Because of the observational nature of this study—not to mention the statistically weak correlations—it is impossible to demonstrate that bullying in elementary school causes substance abuse five years later. Earnshaw recognizes this, but maintains that her study should serve as a wakeup call that some kids can’t just shake off bullying. Given the stakes, she strongly urges teachers and pediatricians to play larger roles in mitigating the effects of bullying.

“We urge pediatricians to screen youth for peer victimization, symptoms of depression and substance use,” Earnshaw said in a release. “These doctors can offer counsel to youth and recommendations to parents and youth for approaching teachers and school staff for support.”