Friday, August 23, 2013

Bullied Kids Get More Cancer as Adults, Study Says

Well, yet another infuriating study about the long-term affects of bullying, albeit with a twist, has just been released.

According to Wolke et al, authors of "Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcomes,” kids who are bullied, as well as those who bully, are more likely to suffer serious long-term healthcare issues such as diabetes, cancer, and obesity than children who haven’t been part of the “bullying cycle.”

However, let’s be clear. The bullying targets have a much harder time as adults than the bullies, with significantly higher rates of disease, job troubles, and poor relationships with family and friends.

Study co-author William Copeland, an associate professor at Duke University School of Medicine, was quoted by NPR’s Shots as saying, "What we saw for them was this really pervasive pattern where they were impaired across a lot of areas."

This is so sad, and it feels kind of hopeless. For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking about the residual affects of childhood trauma, and I guess the good news is that studies such as this reinforce the need for early intervention. Of course, adults have to recognize the problem first, and many still don’t. Or won’t. I’m not sure which.

For example, I read through a bunch of comments to Shots' article and was somewhat surprised by those (presumed) adults who responded by blaming the victim, wondering out loud what he did to get someone’s ire up. (Was he too fat? Too socially awkward? Too disabled?) And then there are those who question the study’s validity, suggesting that perhaps there’s a correlation between being bullied as a child and a later higher incidence disease but no proof of a causal relationship.

I suppose they’re being good little scientists, but frankly I don’t give a flying fig whether there’s causation or merely a strong correlation. Because between the study, the testimonies of those who’ve been bullied as children, and my memory, I’ve got all the proof I need.

Still, others disagree. One commenter wrote:

“Could it be that weak children are bullied because they ARE weak (and then the weak also grow up to be weak adults)?”

To which I say—for God’s sake dude, put down that copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species before you hurt yourself! A “weak” child (whatever the heck that means) later grows into a “weak” (i.e., susceptible to disease adult)? And that’s more plausible than believing that someone who’s been abused could suffer ill health as a result? Come on.

Listen, I’m no therapist, and maybe a therapist could straighten me out.

But I tend to think that since humans are social beings, marked social disapproval (not to mention physical and verbal mistreatment) weighs heavy on a child and later contributes to (if not causes) all kinds of lingering feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and self-doubt. It really doesn’t seem that complicated to me. But again, I’m open to hearing something different from a qualified individual.

In the meantime, bullying is wrong, okay? It’s not a harmless activity that all kids must endure during the normal course of development and can then just forget about.

If you’re an adult with some authority and are receiving complaints about bullying, for crying out loud listen up and do something. It’s the only responsible response.


  1. "...suggesting that perhaps there’s a correlation between being bullied as a child and a later higher incidence disease but no proof of a causal relationship.

    I suppose they’re being good little scientists, but frankly I don’t give a flying fig whether there’s causation or merely a strong correlation. "

    You should give a flying fig. If there's correlation but no causation, that means ending bullying completely would have no effect whatsoever on these health consequences discussed in the study.

    I think bullying is a problem too, but that's no reason to start drawing conclusions with no supporting evidence. Assuming causation when there is only evidence of correlation is exactly that.

    1. Hello Anon:

      Perhaps my comment was too flip and masked my actual message--

      If the researchers say their study found a causal relationship, then I see no reason to doubt it, especially considering what I know about bullying and what I've read about the long-term affects of stress. Also, I'm suspicious of the motivations of those readers who objected, and they're certainly not offering proof that refutes the researchers' conclusions.

      One thing I've discovered over and over again is that if you haven't been bullied, you just don't get how bad it is.

  2. Oh alright. I just read the abstract of the paper (it looked like one of the sites you have to pay to read the full paper, although honestly, I didn't look. Now I see it's free, but I'll take your word for it that they did show causality). If they showed those health effects are caused by bullying, the people disputing that should either have their own evidence showing the opposite or at least point out problems in the study that could lead to incorrect conclusions.

    At first this doesn't sound pleasant, but I also think we shouldn't overlook the bullies (yeah, I know). After all, bullies often come from hostile home environments. Many of them are verbally or physically abused at home and bring that attitude to school. We don't tend to hold children as responsible for their actions as we do adults; one look at how reduced criminal sentences for juveniles compared to adults shows that pretty clearly. But that's another good reason to find a solution to bullying; if the would-be-bullies are raised in a way that won't turn them into bullies, both sets of children benefit. They're all children, as mean as some can be, and are often a product of their upbringing. That doesn't make what they do right or acceptable, but we shouldn't throw them to the wolves either, and I believe helping them is at least part of the solution to the problem as a whole.

    1. Hi Anon:

      Oh I agree, intervention is key for children. And that might include some "tough love" and boundaries, as well as whatever else professionals would recommend, which I've no issue with. Adults who bully don't get nearly as much sympathy from me, however.