Bullying Research: At Odds with the Commentary

It will come as no surprise to you to learn that this piece caught my eye whilst I was perusing Twitter last week (the article is linked to below).


The piece describes research by Wolke and his colleagues (2015). The research made use of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the UK (ALSPAC) and the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the USA (GSMS) longitudinal studies.The association between maltreatment, peer victimization, and mental health problems was assessed using binary logistic regression. Binary logistic regression chooses the more likely option between two outcomes in the form of odds ratios: in this case odds for the presence or absence of a mental health problem (i.e., any presence of anxiety, depression, or self-harm or suicidality).

Four groups of children were investigated. Some were maltreated only, some were peer victimized only, some were peer victimized and maltreated, and some were neither maltreated nor peer victimized. It was found that, when compared with children who were not maltreated nor peer victimized, children who were maltreated only were at increased risk for depression in young adulthood. At the same time, those who were both maltreated and peer victimized were at increased risk for overall mental health problems, anxiety, and depression. Children who were peer victimized only were more likely than children who were maltreated only to have mental health problems.

It is the last of these findings that has made the headlines, and is still being amply re-tweeted as I type. It is the comments of Dr. Jennifer Wild that I wish to make the topic of this post:

Dr Jennifer Wild, associate professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford, said the researchers did not investigate why bullying caused mental health problems. But, she said: “The findings are important because they highlight the devastating consequences of bullying and the need for zero tolerance programmes.

Dr. Wild is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, with expertise in anxiety – meaning she is well-placed to talk about this study’s outcome measure. To my mind, however, her comments should come with two health warnings: the first concerns what the researchers did not investigate; the second is the concept of zero tolerance.

The comment made by Dr. Wild is true. Wolke et al. did not investigate the why of the link between peer victimization and mental health problems. However, neither did they intend to do so. Their aim was “to determine whether [mental health problems] are just due to being exposed to both maltreatment and bullying or whether bullying has a unique effect”. What Dr. Wild offers here then is not, as some might be tempted to see it, a criticism of the research, but rather a suggestion for future research. More pertinent criticisms, I would argue, would concern the methods that the researchers used to address their stated aim. One example might be that maltreatment was assessed using parent-report, for UK participants.

Secondly, the recommendation for zero tolerance.  According to the OED online, this is “automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct”. Zero tolerance on bullying was widely advocated by Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary. One might imagine cases where zero tolerance would work well, where rules have been obviously transgressed. And where punishment has been shown to deter rule-breaking. However, when it comes to bullying, neither of these tenets holds true. I have already written about the dubious merits of punishment following bullying – and  as the research attests – bullying can be pernicious precisely because it is difficult to define when it has taken place (it often involves acts of omission that worsen with time) (e.g., Monks & Smith, 2006). This means that zero tolerance and bullying do not make good prospective partners.

In conclusion, it seems to me that Dr. Wild’s comments cloud the true value of Wolke et al.’s findings, which  demonstrate that peer victimization in childhood can have worse long-term effects on young adults’ mental health than maltreatment – and that when a child is maltreated peer victimization can denote an added detriment to mental health. These findings, together with the current pervasiveness of peer victimization, mean that government efforts should focus on finding out what leads to and maintains it. It might also focus, not on promoting zero tolerance, but in researching what the effective methods of reducing bullying may be, in schoolchildren. This should be done in order to that bullying research funding  is no longer at odds with the long-term public health concern that bullying represents.