No one who has lived through the teen years can claim to have made it through unscarred and unscathed. At that tender time when the soft skin of childhood falls away but the adult armor has yet to be fully developed, the words and influence of peers easily outweigh the sway of parents, clergy, and other figures of authority. The adolescent reliance on other teens for a sense of self and identity is complicated by the effects of peer victimization, recognized as the most serious form of bullying and a current topic of intense public and media discussion.
When the bullying that is often accepted as part of childhood is carried over into the more emotionally raw, arguably meaner adolescent years, its effects are heightened as teens evaluate themselves largely on peer feedback. This explains why negative self-esteem accounts for the relationship between peer victimization and the other indicators of psychological adjustment: social self-efficacy (the belief in one's ability to succeed in specific situations or tasks) and social anxiety1.
Peers Victimizing Peers
Peer victimization is a term that encompasses different types of mistreatment, including actions and behaviors that range from overt physical acts of aggression to subtle, consistent social aggression. It appears to be a risk factor for developing significant symptoms of depression and social anxiety disorder. It is also an important risk factor in adolescents who may already be on a path to clinical disorder2. Those with social anxiety disorder experience fears of being negatively evaluated and humiliated in situations in which they may be appraised by others, which leads to their avoiding social situations3.
Recent research findings point to symptoms of depression caused by familial dysfunction, abuse, and peer victimization hindering teens' ability to regulate their emotional selves, and a loss of self-esteem within interpersonal settings. This can result in stunted social development, lack of confidence, and abstinence from social situations as an adult, symptoms recognized in the development of social anxiety disorder4. The analysis of data from one twins study suggests that bullying victimization has been linked to both social and separation anxieties, ADHD, and suicidal thoughts and actions in young adults5.
Long-Term Consequences for Victims
The effects of childhood peer victimization may vary, such as with stuttering, which has also been linked to psychosocial problems in adulthood. Studies have indicated that adults who were victimized as children were more likely to have weaker scores on psychosocial assessment tests6. Other analyses demonstrated that pervasive teasing during childhood, specifically, that related to appearance, was the most precise predictor of adults who anxiously expect and rapidly perceive and overreact to rejection, otherwise known as rejection sensitivity, as well as loneliness later in life. A possible explanation for this relationship might be that repeated exposure to childhood teasing sensitizes a person to the possibility of negative evaluation and rejection during interpersonal interactions in adulthood. Heightened sensitivity to negative evaluation and rejection cues can result in an individual having inaccurate ideas about the motivations of others, as well as avoiding social interactions7.
It is worth noting that some studies have demonstrated that social anxiety in individuals could itself be a risk factor for victimization. A recent study on cyberbullying found that perpetrators might knowingly choose socially anxious peers to victimize. It's likely that these potential victims have poorly developed social and communication skills, making them less able to defend themselves8.
While most studies on the effects of childhood bullying focus on young adults, numerous studies following bullies and bully victims well into middle age demonstrate wide-ranging effects on the health and wealth of those directly involved, as well as on the social well-being of the larger culture. Peer victimization in school settings makes it easy to identify and monitor by teachers and other school personnel. This may provide an opening for curriculum programs in bullying awareness and prevention to reduce the long-term human and social costs of peer victimization9.
Successful School Programs
Findings indicate that school-based programs have positive outcomes among students who might be predisposed to bullying, as well as those who stutter and might be victimized10. It is important that future studies examine the sustainability of school-based interventions and explore potential cost-effective models. One recent study suggests that school-based cognitive-behavioral interventions, such as Skills for Academic and Social Success (SASS), may benefit students by reducing social anxiety and improving their functioning11. Other studies demonstrated that the UTalk version of Interpersonal Psychotherapy-Adolescent Skills Training (IPT-AST) may benefit adolescents who report peer victimization and subclinical levels of social anxiety disorder or depression12.
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1. Romera, E. M., Gómez-Ortiz, O., & Ortega-Ruiz, R. (2016). The mediating role of psychological adjustment between peer victimization and social adjustment in adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 71-9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01749
2. La Greca, A., Ehrenreich-May, J., Mufson, L., & Chan, S. (2016). Preventing adolescent social anxiety and depression and reducing peer victimization: Intervention development and open trial. Child & Youth Care Forum, 45(6), 905-926. doi:10.1007/s10566-016-9363-0
3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing.
4. Hamilton, J., Potter, C., Olino, T., Abramson, L., Heimberg, R., Alloy, L., & Alloy, L. B. (2016). The temporal sequence of social anxiety and depressive symptoms following interpersonal stressors during adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44(3), 495-509. doi:10.1007/s10802-015-0049-0
5. Silberg, J. L., Copeland, W., Linker, J., Moore, A. A., Roberson-Nay, R., & York, T. P. (2016). Psychiatric outcomes of bullying victimization: A study of discordant monozygotic twins. Psychological Medicine, 46(9), 1875-1883. doi:10.1017/S0033291716000362
6. Blood, G. W., & Blood, I. M. (2016). Long-term consequences of childhood bullying in adults who stutter: Social anxiety, fear of negative evaluation, self-esteem, and satisfaction with life. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 50, 72-84.
7. Zlomke, K., Jeter, K., & Cook, N. (2016). Recalled childhood teasing in relation to adult rejection and evaluation sensitivity. Personality & Individual Differences, 89, 129-133. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.10.021
8. Pabian, S., & Vandebosch, H. (2016). An investigation of short-term longitudinal associations between social anxiety and victimization and perpetration of traditional bullying and cyberbullying. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 45(2), 328-339. doi:10.1007/s10964-015-0259-3
9. Wolke, D., Copeland, W. E., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013). Impact of bullying in childhood on adult health, wealth, crime, and social outcomes. Psychological Science, 24(10), 1958-1970.
10. Langevin, M., Prasad, N. N., Nippold, M., & Schwarz, I. (2012). A stuttering education and bullying awareness and prevention resource: A feasibility study. Language, Speech & Hearing Services In Schools, 43(3), 344-358. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2012/11-0031)
11. Cohen, J., Stewart, C., Tracy, E., & Warner, C.M. (2016). School Counselor Can Help Teens With Social Anxiety. Anxiety.org. Retrieved from https://www.anxiety.org/school-counselors-help-teens-overcome-social-anxiety
Date of original publication: December 27, 2016
Updated: January 13, 2020