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Are Bullies to Blame for Teen Substance Abuse?

Billy’s third grade school year isn’t going great. He’s regularly bullied by one of his classmates and a larger-than-life fourth grader.

Jimmy’s elementary school years were great…it’s his middle school experience he wishes he could skip. The verbal insults he hears every week are more than he can take.

Which of these boys will be better off in high school? Interestingly, research shows Billy will likely bounce back from his early childhood bullying, while Jimmy’s more likely to turn to substance abuse to cope with these experiences.

The Science of Bullying and Drugs

Substance abused teen looking at a mobile phone in the parkA recent study looked at the effects of bullying on third graders and found that, while being bullied can hurt young children in a lot of ways, it doesn’t necessarily lead to substance abuse in adolescence.

These results are a mixed bag, but when it’s all said and done, the ninth graders show no greater risk for using drugs or alcohol if bullied when younger.

The results are a bit different when bullying occurs at an older age. Research reveals that one in five high school students is bullied. Today, methods of bullying have extended beyond verbal and physical. “Cyberbullying” is the new favorite weapon, with adolescents using texting and social media to humiliate their peers. Yes,bullying in middle and high school makes an impact on substance use, here’s proof:

  • Verbal abuse in middle school triples the risk of high school alcohol abuse.
  • Students bullied in grades seven through 12 are 1.5 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
  • 30 percent of high school students who are bullied smoke pot.
  • 13 percent of students not involved in bullying smoke pot.

The Spiral Caused by Teen Bullying

A couple of factors increase the impact of teen bullying. First, bullying can cause depression in teens. Already in an emotionally tumultuous stage, adolescents who experience bullying may slip into depression. This often leads to substance abuse in an effort to cope with the depression. Sadly, alcohol and drug use only make the symptoms worse. In the end, it creates a vicious cycle that can be hard to escape.

Second, bullying is embarrassing. Teens don’t want to face the ridicule or lack of support from their peers. They will avoid making new friends or connections out of fear of rejection or alienation. This occurs at a time when connections to friends are extremely important. Without social support, the likelihood of substance abuse goes up in teens.