Young people who are bullied repeatedly throughout childhood and adolescence have a significantly higher risk of getting in trouble with the law in later life, according to a paper presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.
The study, released on Thursday, surveyed 7,335 Americans born between 1980 and 1984. It found that 24 per cent of those who reported being "repeatedly" bullied before age 12 and from 12-18 had been arrested at least once as adults. Only 17 per cent of young people who said they were not bullied during those times ever found themselves in handcuffs. Of those who suffered long-term bullying, 18 per cent were eventually convicted of a crime, while for non-victims, the rate was 11 per cent.
Debra Pepler, a professor of psychology at York University and a leading Canadian researcher on bullying who is working on a similar study, said her research echoes the U.S. findings on victims of chronic bullying.
"I don't blame the victim in any way," Dr. Pepler said, "but these children are not learning to get along with others. They're not learning to solve problems and get help. We know that they are so frustrated and so distressed that they take to aggression to defend themselves and to gain status."
Children who feel permanently shut out may also be more easily lured into delinquent behaviour, Dr. Pepler added.
"Young people not embedded in a peer group may be more susceptible to peer pressure," she said. When it comes to looking cool or fitting in, "they'll do anything."
Past studies of victims of bullying looked at narrow periods of time, while previous research on the link between bullying and delinquency focused mainly on perpetrators, said Michael Turner, a criminologist at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and the author of the paper.
The study compared people who reported being bullied in both childhood and the teen years with those who never experienced bullying, as well as those who suffered during only one of the two developmental stages.
"The individuals who were chronically victimized had the highest incidence across all the measures, whether it's delinquency, substance abuse, arrests, conviction, incarceration. We found this relationship that had gone unnoticed for years," Dr. Turner said. "Victimization can have a long-term, cumulative effect on externalizing behaviours."
Young women who were bullied in their childhood and teens saw some of the worst legal outcomes as adults, particularly related to abusing drugs and alcohol, the study found.
The reasons for the gender imbalance are not entirely clear, Dr. Turner said.
According to Dr. Pepler, girls tend to forge close, trusting friendships that act as a "protective buffer" against bullies. Without that, adolescent girls who are socially excluded are more likely to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs and seek out less healthy relationships, Dr. Pepler said.
"We see girls getting into relationships with deviant older men, and entering into crime that way," she said.
Bullying tends to peak in the late elementary years from Grade 5 to Grade 7, Dr. Turner said, and that highlights the need for early intervention.
The study identified family doctors and other medical personnel as a "critical point of contact" for screening children and teens who may be afraid to speak up at school about bullying.
"Everyone who works with children and youth needs to be educated and trained about bullying," Dr. Pepler said. "It's one of our core human needs to feel like people care."