Bullying and Substance Use Part I: What Do We Know?

Bullying and Substance Use Part I: What Do We Know?

This post is the first part of a two part series, click here to read Part II: Now That We Know, What Can We Do?
Or, click here to read more from the Catalyst blog here.

Part I: Introduction

Unwanted or aggressive behavior among school children is often described as “bullying.” In 2012 an article was published about a study that looked at the relationship between bullying and substance use in middle and high school students. The purpose of the study was to add to the then limited research about this connection by looking at self-reported prevalence of bullying and substance use in middle and high school youth. Although a link between bullying and the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana had been established, researchers wanted to discover potential variations in substance use by bullies, victims, and bully-victims (victims of bullying who then bully others) and look for implications for prevention and intervention (Radliff et al., 2012). Using scales for bullying, victimization, and substance use, the study authors found evidence that supported both students who bullied and bully-victims having increased rates of substance use. For both middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, the majority of students in the survey (n=78,333) were not involved in bullying and were non-users of substances. Bullying and substance use status were related significantly for all three substances, with bullies and bully-victims having the highest rates of substance use. The researchers concluded that prevention and intervention programs should address the negative effects of both bullying and substance use and cited the need for longitudinal research and efforts to reduce risky behaviors and promote healthy social interactions in schools.

Bullying Definition

In his initial research into bullying, Olweus used three criteria to define bullying:

  • Intentionality: “an intent or desire/aim to inflict harm (injury or discomfort) upon another” (2013).
  • Some Repetitiveness: Repetitiveness was added to be “more certain that the negative behavior is intended,” although Olweus states that he “never thought of this as an absolutely necessary criterion (Olweus 1993, 1999).
  • Power Imbalance: In this criterion, Olweus maintains that “the ultimate ‘power of definition’ must reside with the targeted student—at least as a basic point of departure” due to the difficulty of identifying behavior as bullying with accuracy as a person outside of the interaction and the fact that the perceptions of the victim impact the definition of behavior as bullying (Olweus, 2013).

Olweus also states that these criteria help not only to define bullying but also to distinguish bullying from general victimization and general aggression, and aid in measuring behaviors during research and in intervening appropriately in practice.

Categories of Bullying

According to the stopbullying.gov website, there are three different categories of bullying:

  • “Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things. Verbal bullying includes:
    • Teasing
    • Name-calling
    • Inappropriate sexual comments
    • Taunting
    • Threatening to cause harm.
  • Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes:
    • Leaving someone out on purpose
    • Telling other children not to be friends with someone
    • Spreading rumors about someone
    • Embarrassing someone in public
  • Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Physical bullying includes:
    • Hitting/kicking/pinching
    • Spitting
    • Tripping/pushing
    • Taking or breaking someone’s things
    • Making mean or rude hand gestures (stopbullying.gov, 2020).

Bullying most often happens within the school setting and also occurs during travel to and from school, in neighborhoods, and on the Internet as Cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can happen on cell phones as texting, and on computers and tablets through social media, email, and even online gaming applications. Cyberbullying is the “sending, posting, or sharing of negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else” (stopbullying.gov, 2020).  Because digital devices enable 24-hour communication, the information posted is permanent and public, and the behavior is difficult for teachers and parents to see and monitor, cyberbullying is often described as “Persistent, Permanent, and Hard to Notice.” Cyberbullying is also potentially difficult to control because it can be said to fall under the right to freedom of speech (Zych et al., 2015). However, cyberbullying can also cross the line into unlawful behavior, and schools may be required to act when cyberbullying occurs. A map of state and local laws, policies, and regulations is available on the Laws Policies & Regulations page of the stopbullying.org website.

Prevalence of Bullying

According to the stopbullying.gov website, the federal government collects data on youth bullying through two sources:

  • The 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice) indicates that, among students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, 15% were bullied online or by text.
  • The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that an estimated 15.7% of high school students were electronically bullied in the 12 months prior to the survey.

In addition, certain special populations may be at increased risk for bullying or being a victim of bullying. These can include bullying due to race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. LGBT youth, military connected youth, and those with disabilities or special needs can also be at higher risk for bullying than the general youth population (stopbullying.gov, 2020).

Other types of aggressive behavior that occur that outside of the definition of bullying (with links to more information) include:

For information on helping children to acquire the skills to get along well with other and how to manage peer conflicts, visit the stopbullying.org Early Childhood page.

Effects of Bullying

Bullying can cause problems for not only victims of bullying, but also for the bullies and witnesses of bullying, including mental health issues, substance use, and suicide. Being bullied can qualify as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). For more information about ACEs, read the Catalyst blog post Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Public Health Crisis That is Treatable and Preventable and this fact sheet on Bullying as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Children who are bullied are impacted physically, socially, emotionally, academically, and mentally. They experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness, health problems, and lower academic achievement.

Those who bully others experience higher rates of alcohol and other drug use both in adolescence and adulthood, get involved in more fights, vandalism, become sexually active earlier, are more likely to drop out of school, have higher rates of committing crimes and traffic citations, and are more likely to abuse their partners as adults.

Those who witness bullying are at risk for increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, have more mental health problems, and higher rates of missing or skipping school (stopbullying.gov, 2020).

In short, risky and unhealthy behaviors of many types are found to be associated with bullying for all involved or exposed, not the least of which is substance use (Gaete et al., 2017).

Stay tuned for next week and Bullying and Substance Use Part 2: What Do We Know? As the Catalyst blog explores the most recent research on the connection between bullying and substance use and the implications for prevention and intervention.

Have you had experience with a client who was involved in bullying as a perpetrator, victim, or bystander? How has their experience with bullying impacted them? Do you regularly explore bullying experiences with clients to help with assessment? Please share in the comments below.


Gaete, J., Tornero, B., Valenzuela, D., Rojas-Barahona, C. A., Salmivalli, C., Valenzuela, E., & Araya, R. (2017). Substance Use among Adolescents Involved in Bullying: A Cross-Sectional Multilevel Study. Frontiers in psychology8, 1056. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01056

Olweus, D. (2013). School bullying: Development and some important challenges. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 9(1), 751-780. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050212-185516

Radliff, K. M., Wheaton, J. E., Robinson, K., & Morris, J. (2012). Illuminating the relationship between bullying and substance use among middle and high school youth. Addictive Behaviors, 37(4), 569-572. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2012.01.001

What Is Bullying. (2020, July 29). StopBullying.gov. https://www.stopbullying.gov/

Zych, I., Ortega-Ruiz, R., & Del Rey, R. (2015). Scientific research on bullying and cyberbullying: Where have we been and where are we going. Aggression and violent behavior24, 188-198.

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