University professor analyzes youth bullying data

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Courtesy of Valerie Earnshaw
Professor Valerie Earnshaw worked on the Healthy Passages study, analyzing the effects of bullying on children..

Senior Reporter

A recent study determined that bullying at an early age can lead to depressive symptoms and substance use later in life.

This study, called Healthy Passages, was led by Professor Valerie Earnshaw, a University of Connecticut-educated social psychologist with post-doctoral training at Yale University. Earnshaw now serves as an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development. While at Harvard Medical School and the Boston Children’s Hospital, she was introduced to the Healthy Passages study, a research project focused on the health effects of bullying, and became involved as an analyst.

The study spanned five years and focused on 4,000 students in grades five, seven and 10 across three cities: Birmingham, Ala., Houston, Texas, and Los Angeles, Calif. In each of the three grades, students filled out surveys answering various questions on peer victimization. It was only after the data was collected when Earnshaw’s role as an analyst came to the forefront.

Earnshaw’s prior research focused on stigma and human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS). She also conducted research in bullying and smoking initiation among elementary and middle school aged youth in New Haven, Conn. Smoking initiation refers to the first time an individual smoked a cigarette and does not include an ongoing nicotine addiction.

This relates to her analysis of the Healthy Passages study, as children who were bullied at a young age can grow up to develop a substance use disorder and suffer from the stigma surrounding that disorder — a stigma that can obstruct access to proper care and help.

While she was not involved enough with the data collection of the Healthy Passages study to experience any roadblocks in that realm, Earnshaw explained her own experience with the research.

“Working with this much data is challenging,” she said. “You have these three variables measured at all three time points, so just to develop an analytic strategy is a little bit challenging.”

Earnshaw spent upwards of a year planning her analysis before even using the findings from the study.

“I was hypothesizing that bullying would be associated with substance use by tenth grade,” Earnshaw said — a prediction that turned out to be accurate.

Another finding of Earnshaws was that depressive symptoms caused by bullying had a great chance of causing substance use later in life.

“Youth who experienced more frequent bullying in fifth grade reported more depressive symptoms in seventh grade, and then those depressive symptoms were associated with higher likelihood of substance use by tenth grade,” Earnshaw said referring to the findings of her analysis.

Of the many takeaways from this study, Earnshaw stressed that bullying should be taken seriously, as the effects can be very severe. Depressive symptoms, in particular, were evident in students even two and five years later in the 7th and 10th grade. This is also a factor in increased substance use over time, which can come with its own consequences.

“I think that schools and the media and all adults involved with children’s lives can do better until bullying is totally eradicated,” Earnshaw said.

According to Earnshaw, there are some interventions put in place to stop bullying and its effects, but they are not always totally effective. Many schools focus on bystander intervention by speaking to the whole school, but different approaches that target students who are likely to bully or to engage in bullying may be more beneficial.

This could be especially important for kids who are likely to be bullied, typically students who are different in some way, like girls who are sexually harassed because they are female. These programs either try to reduce the bullying, or try to make students more resilient to bullying.

There is also another tier of interventions that attempts to create support systems for kids who are bullied in the form of support systems. According to Earnshaw, there is no current system that is 100 percent effective, so there is much room for improvement.

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