Researchers found that serious illness, struggling to hold down a regular job and poor social relationships are just some of the problems faced in adult life by those bullied in childhood.
It has long been recognised that bullying causes problems at school, but relatively little research has been done on its impact in later life.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, highlights the link, with problems related to health, poverty and social relationships. The study is notable because it looks into many factors that go beyond health-related outcomes.
Scientists Dr Dieter Wolke, of the University of Warwick, and William Copeland, of Duke University Medical Centre in the United States, led the research team.
They also looked beyond the study of victims and investigated the impact on all those affected: the victims, the bullies themselves and those who fall into both categories, so-called “bully-victims”.
Dr Wolke said: “We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up. We need to change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the individual and the country as a whole – the effects are long-lasting and significant.”
The ‘bully-victims’ were at greatest risk for health problems in adulthood – over six times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly or develop a psychiatric disorder, compared to those not involved in bullying.
The results show that bully-victims are perhaps the most vulnerable group, who may turn to bullying after being bullied themselves, as they may lack the emotional regulation or support required to cope with it.
Dr Wolke added: “In the case of bully-victims, it shows how bullying can spread when left untreated.”
Although he accepted some schools had intervention programmes to tackle bullying, he said new measures were crucial.
He added: “Some interventions are already available in schools, but new tools are needed to help health professionals to identify, monitor and deal with the ill-effects of bullying.
“The challenge we face now is committing the time and resources to these interventions to try and put an end to bullying.”
However, the study revealed very few ill-effects of being the bully. After accounting for the influence of childhood psychiatric problems and family hardships – which were prevalent among bullies – the act of bullying itself did not seem to have a negative impact in adulthood.
Dr Wolke said: “Bullies appear to be children with a prevailing antisocial tendency who know how to get under the skin of others, with bully-victims taking the role of their helpers.
“It is important to find ways of removing the need for these children to bully others and, in doing so, protect the many children suffering at the hands of bullies – the ones hindered later in life.”