Wounds from childhood bullying may persist into college years, study finds

by Sharita Forrest   /   Sep 02, 2016

Dorothy Espelage

The emotional trauma of being bullied by peers may surpass that of experiencing child abuse or being exposed to neighborhood violence, according to a new study led by educational psychologist Dorothy Espelage, who conducted the research as a faculty member in the Department of Educational Psychology at the College of Education at Illinois.  

The study, which involved 480 college freshmen through seniors, indicated that the detrimental effects of bullying may linger for years, negatively affecting victims’ mental health well into young adulthood. While most of the scholarship on bullying has focused on kindergarten through 12th-grade students, the struggles revealed by college students who participated in the research suggest a need to develop assessments and interventions for this population, according to the researchers.

Experiencing bullying was the strongest predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among the college students who participated in the research, surpassing other types of trauma such as exposure to community violence or being abused or neglected by adults, Espelage and her co-authors found.

Females in particular struggled with the emotional damage inflicted by bullying, reporting significantly greater levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD than their male peers, according to the study.

“Bullying victimization significantly predicted students’ current levels of depression and anxiety—over and above other childhood victimization experiences,” Espelage said. “The prevalence of psychological distress in children who have been bullied is well-documented, and this research suggests that college students’ psychological distress may be connected in part to their perceptions of past childhood bullying victimization experiences.”

While at Illinois, Espelage held appointments as a Hardie Scholar and the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Education. Now a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, she is recognized nationally as an expert on bullying, sexual harassment, homophobic teasing, and dating and gang violence.  

Illinois alumnus Jun Sung Hong, currently a professor of social work at Wayne State University, was one of the co-authors of the study.

Read the entire article from the Illinois News Bureau.