September 4, 2019

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by Prof. Louise Arseneault, PhD FMedSci


Professor of Developmental Psychology

The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience

King’s College London, United Kingdom

Many people have childhood memories of being pushed around and being punched by other pupils when they felt they couldn’t retaliate. They may also remember being the topic of nasty rumours or being excluded by others. Unfortunately, being bullied is not an unusual experience even in the modern day.

Bullying involves repeated instances of abusive behaviours between peers where it is more difficult for the victims to defend themselves. While such behaviours were commonly accepted only a few decades ago, there is a growing movement departing from the widely held assumption that bullying is just an inevitable part of growing up. Robust studies  have shown that being bullied is a social experience that contributes to emotional problems at an early age.

Examples can be seen in studies that report differences in emotional problems between pairs of monozygotic (identical) twins where one twin had been bullied, and the other had not. Findings indicate that the twins who had been bullied showed higher levels of emotional problems compared to their co-twins – even after accounting for their emotional problems prior to being bullied. As monozygotic twins share the same genes and grew up in the same family, neither genes nor shared environmental factors can account for the differences in emotional problems between these two groups. These studies are key because they rule out the possibility that victims of bullying have mental health problems due to prior mental illness or other contributing factors.

Crucially, this research demonstrated that bullying has an impact on young people’s development, over and above their genetic propensity to being bullied and to developing mental health problems. If we can reduce bullying behaviour early in life, we are better placed to limit suffering and emerging mental health problems among young people. Unfortunately, however, some important studies have recently shown that current interventions cannot eradicate bullying.

Let’s consider another line of research here. Some studies have shown that being the target of bullying is not just about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Studies have identified sets of factors, both individual and contextual, that can make some young people more likely to be targeted by bullying behaviours. This can include young people who show early symptoms of mental health problems, those from deprived backgrounds or coming from poorer neighbourhoods, and those who have already been abused at the hands of an adult. Such factors can place young people at higher risk of experiencing bullying.

This suggests that if early interventions equip ‘at-risk’ young people with the right tools and social skills, we may reduce bullying behaviours and mental health problems in schools. This is not blaming the victims of bullying for what is happening to them. Let’s take some examples from well-known strategies to limit criminality for illustrating this point: people are told to lock their car doors or their homes to reduce the risk of being the victims of theft. People are also recommended to walk in groups late at night or in unsafe areas to prevent them from being the target of mugging or assaults. We can adopt similar strategies to prevent young people from being the victims of bullying, while in parallel, also aiming to reduce bullying behaviours with anti-bullying programmes and policies that are already in place.

To investigate what these strategies might look like, and whether they are feasible, we last year held a ‘policy lab’, made up of practitioners, researchers, policymakers and advocates. We identified a set of principles to guide the implementation of early interventions which aim to reduce and prevent mental health problems in young people by focusing on potential victims of bullying. These principles state that such interventions should:

  • be part of a wider wellbeing/mental health and education agenda, rather than standalone initiatives
  • integrate into existing resources/approaches wherever possible (both anti-bullying policies and mental health/wellbeing initiatives)
  • blend universal intervention with targeted escalation for those at higher-risk of victimisation
  • consider different settings (e.g. cyberbullying) and an age-group approach which addresses the ‘whole person’, especially during key transitions
  • be scaled up wherever possible in ways that spread evidence-based good practice and ensure sustainability.

The policy lab also discussed what kinds of interventions might be effective, and how to implement them. We hope that these are just the first steps in creating new strategies that will eradicate bullying early in life. Read the full policy brief to find out more.


Professor Arseneault will be presenting a keynote address at IEPA’s 12th International Conference on Early Intervention in Mental Health, New Frontiers in Early Intervention.  To learn more about early intervention, bullying and young people and connect with other inspiring leaders in the early intervention field join us in Rio De Janeiro 20-23rd September, 2020.

Sign up now to be notified when registration and abstract submission opens.