Bullying And Addiction: Can Bullying Cause Substance Abuse?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on

Bullying can impact both children and adults, and it creates long-lasting consequences. Some of those consequences, such as trauma and isolation, can lead to substance abuse and addiction.

Bullying And Addiction: Can Bullying Cause Substance Abuse?

According to StopBullying.gov, bullying consists of “unwanted, aggressive behavior between school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”

However, other sources include adults in the definition of bullying, especially in workplace settings.

Whether it involves children or adults, the defining factors of bullying are repetition and power imbalance, and it can have a long-lasting impact on victims.

Among other issues, bullying can lead to substance abuse and addiction.

Types Of Bullying

Bullies may use several tactics to intimidate and harm their victims. These include cyberbullying, physical bullying, and verbal bullying.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is a type of bullying that occurs over digital media. For example, a person may bully somebody over social media, instant messaging, and texts.

Cyberbullying may include spreading negative, false, or malicious information about another person. A cyberbully may also reveal personal information about their victim with the intent of causing harm or embarrassment.

Because cyberbullying does not require the victim’s physical presence, it may not end with the school day or work day.

Cyberbullying, therefore, is often more persistent than other types of bullying.

Physical Bullying

StopBullying.gov defines physical bullying as “hurting a person’s body or possessions.”

Examples may include hitting, pinching, shoving, breaking a person’s belongings, or making inappropriate hand gestures.

Verbal Bullying

Verbal bullying involves saying or writing harmful things to the victim. It includes name-calling, taunting, teasing, and making sexual comments.

A bully may also verbally threaten the person they have targeted.

How Bullying Impacts Victims

Bullying has short-term and long-term effects that can impact a person’s physical, mental, and social health.

Physical Effects Of Bullying

In a study on peer victimization, students who were bullied experienced more physical health problems than students who were not bullied.

In some cases, physical effects are direct results of bullying. For example, a person may sustain injuries as a result of physical attacks.

Long-lasting physical effects include:

  • sleep disorders
  • heart palpitations
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • headaches
  • chronic pain
  • dizziness
  • bedwetting

These long-term effects often occur as stress-related somatic responses. Bullying may activate the fight-flight-freeze response in the victim, creating chronic stress that results in physical symptoms over time.

Emotional Effects Of Bullying

Bullying also affects victims on an emotional and mental level.

Emotional impacts of bullying include:

  • depression
  • insecurity
  • emotional trauma
  • anger
  • tension and anxiety

Much as with the physical health issues caused by bullying, the emotional impact of bullying occurs as a result of a prolonged fight-flight-freeze state.

Academic And Social Effects Of Bullying

Bullying may also stunt a person’s social growth and create academic problems.

People who experience bullying may develop a sense of hypervigilance to avoid being caught off guard by the people who bully them.

This hypervigilance pulls focus away from school, friends, family, and activities.

How People Cope With Bullying

A review of bullying studies reveals that students respond to bullying with various coping strategies. The study divides these strategies into two categories: approach and avoidance.

Approach-based strategies are problem-solving strategies that include seeking social support and confronting the bully directly.

Research shows that these strategies produce short-term anxiety, but they often prevent long-term stressors.

Avoidance-based strategies, on the other hand, provide short-term relief, but the bully’s continued actions create long-term stressors.

Avoidance techniques include social withdrawal, ignoring the bully, and emotional deflection, a defense strategy that involves shifting focus away from negative emotions onto something else.

According to studies cited in the above review, many bullying victims use a combination of tactics.

How Bullying May Lead To Substance Abuse

According to a study published in Children and Youth Services Review, adolescents who are involved in bullying are three times more likely than their peers to participate in risky substance consumption.

These statistics apply to both the perpetrators and victims of bullying.

Contributes To Low Self-Worth

Multiple sources reveal that bullying creates low self-worth in victims. In other words, people who experience bullying often feel unworthy of love, goodness, and belonging.

Researchers have found a correlation between low self-esteem and substance abuse.

Though it is difficult to determine whether low self-worth causes substance abuse or vice versa, these two conditions may contribute to each other.

For instance, a person who has a low sense of self-worth may use substances to numb or ignore feelings of unworthiness, and they may develop an addiction as a result.

Addiction, which is a highly stigmatized condition, may then add to those feelings.

Isolation And Loneliness

A person who experiences bullying may withdraw from other people for several reasons.

For instance, low self-worth may convince a person that they are unworthy of love, which can include romantic partnerships, friendship, and love from family members.

Likewise, a person may avoid others in anticipation of being bullied, staying away from people as an attempt to avoid harm.

This isolation can create loneliness, which may lead to substance abuse, as some people use substances to numb painful feelings.

Physical Or Mental Health Problems

Bullying often creates physical and mental health problems in victims, both of which may perpetuate substance use.

Many people who experience substance abuse also have a co-occurring mental health disorder, or dual diagnosis.

For example, depression and addiction are linked because people with depression may self-medicate with alcohol or illicit substances.

Physical health problems may also lead to addiction. For example, many people with chronic pain develop an addiction to opioids, which are often prescribed for pain relief.

Fear And Anxiety

Bullying causes both short-term fear and long-term anxiety.

When bullying creates hypervigilance, that hypervigilance can cause persistent feelings of dread, leaving the victim unable to relax. Some people develop clinical anxiety disorders as a result.

Anxiety disorders and substance abuse often occur together. Although more research is needed on the connection, many experts believe that it comes from a desire to self-medicate.

Some substances, such as opioid drugs or alcohol, can create a temporary sense of safety and relaxation. However, they can also cause chemical dependency and a cycle of rebound anxiety.

Other Issues Bullying May Cause

In addition to substance abuse and addiction, bullying can cause other mental health disorders. These disorders, like depression and anxiety, often overlap with substance abuse as well.

Eating Disorders

Bullying may lead to eating disorders for multiple reasons.

For example, if the bully emphasizes the victim’s weight and appearance, the victim may attempt to lose weight and develop an eating disorder in the process.

Binge eating may occur if bullying prevents a person from eating. For example, a child who is bullied during lunchtime may not be able to eat while at school.

This unwanted food restriction during lunch may cause the child to eat large amounts of food upon arriving at home.

Eating disorders and substance abuse often overlap. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), up to half of people with eating disorders also experience drug and alcohol use.

Behavioral Disorders

Behavioral disorders are characterized by disruptive, irregular, and persistent behaviors.

These can include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and conduct disorder.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that a person is born with, but ODD and conduct disorder may have roots in trauma.

When researchers study ODD and conduct disorder, which are categorized by persistent rule-breaking, they primarily focus on how these disorders cause people to bully others.

However, because both disorders may be exacerbated by trauma, being bullied may worsen ODD and conduct disorder symptoms.

Due to impulsive behaviors and a greater tendency toward self-harm, people with behavioral disorders have a high risk of addiction.

Where Bullying Occurs

Bullying may occur just about anywhere, including on school grounds, at home, and on social media platforms.

School Grounds

School grounds give bullies in-person access to their victims. On weekdays, most children remain in school for eight hours or longer.

As a result, bullies have many opportunities to inflict physical, verbal, and emotional harm.

StopBullying.gov reports that most school bullying incidents occur within the building. However, bullying may also occur in other locations such as the playground or school bus.

At Home

Bullying may also occur at home, especially if the perpetrator is a sibling or another member of the household.

Home-based bullying may be especially insidious, as the home should be a place of relaxation and safety.

According to studies on substance abuse risk factors, children who are abused or maltreated in the home are more likely than their peers to misuse drugs and alcohol.

Social Media Platforms

Much of cyberbullying occurs over social media, where bullying can continue away from school property.

Common social media platforms include:

  • TikTok
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Discord
  • WhatsApp
  • Snapchat

Reasons Why Some People Are Targeted For Bullying

Often, bullies have low self-esteem, and they bully other people in an attempt to feel powerful. Therefore, they victimize people whom they perceive as less powerful than themselves.

As a result, bullies target people for disabilities, minority status, financial status, and other factors.

Disabilities

Young people with disabilities, including those with physical, emotional, and developmental disabilities, experience high rates of bullying in school.

Bullies exploit several vulnerabilities in people with disabilities, including:

  • food allergies and other sources of life-threatening reactions
  • physical limitations such as coordination difficulties
  • social struggles
  • communication difficulties

Some of these factors may hinder a student from seeking help from peers or adults.

Economic Status

Bullies may also target a person’s economic status. A student from a low-income family, for example, may experience bullying from students from more privileged financial backgrounds.

Because bullies sometimes exploit visible differences, they may target students who show signs of a different economic status, such as wearing older clothing or receiving free lunch at school.

Race, Nationality, And Ethnicity

Some people bully others on the basis of race, nationality, or ethnicity. Factors such as appearance, accents, and other perceived differences may be targeted.

Students may experience an especially high risk of bullying if few other students at their school share their racial or ethnic identity, as social isolation increases vulnerability.

Bullying based on race, nationality, ethnicity, and other aspects of a person’s identity may be considered discrimination and harassment.

Religious Affiliation

Some people bully others for their religious affiliation.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students report the highest rates of religion-based bullying incidents.

Muslim students report an especially high rate of cyberbullying experiences.

StopBullying.gov reports that students who wear visibly religious garments, such as hijabs, turbans, and yarmulkes, are often targeted by bullies.

Sexual Orientation

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer individuals experience more bullying at school than their heterosexual peers, according to research.

Most studies on bullying and sexual orientation focus on lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, so more research is needed on the experiences of asexual, pansexual, and otherwise queer students.

In any case, non-heterosexual students report being bullied for their orientations or perceived orientations. Incidents often include physical violence and homophobic slurs.

Among LGBTQ people who experience addiction, many cite discriminatory experiences, including bullying, as a reason for abusing substances.

Gender Identity

Among queer students, transgender students experience the highest rates of bullying from peers. Many transgender students feel unsafe at school as a result.

Furthermore, adults may exacerbate this type of bullying, as many faculty and staff members do not respect every student’s gender identity.

Bullying is one of many reasons why transgender people experience addiction more often than their cisgender (non-transgender) peers.

Bullying Statistics In The United States

Bullying impacts some groups more than others. Statistics vary by age, sex and gender, and sexual orientation.

LGBTQ Bullying

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 43% of transgender young people have experienced bullying at school, while only 18% of cisgender young people reported being bullied.

The same data shows that 29% of lesbian and gay young people have experienced bullying on school property, as have 31% of bisexual students, compared to 17% of heterosexual young people.

Asexual, pansexual, and otherwise queer students also frequently report bullying and exclusion. However, few studies have examined the rate at which these students experience bullying.

Male And Female Bullying

Male and female students experience different rates and types of bullying.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), among students between the ages of 12 and 18, female students were more likely to report being bullied than male students.

Specifically, 25% of female students reported bullying experiences, compared to 19% of male students.

In the NCES-cited study, female students were more likely to have experienced verbal and social bullying. For example, many reported having false rumors spread about them.

Male students who experienced bullying were more likely to report physical bullying tactics, such as hitting or shoving.

Little research has been done on the bullying of intersex students, or those whose bodies do not fit into the typical male-female binary notions.

However, the overlap between the intersex and transgender communities, and the possibility of being perceived as “different,” may leave intersex people vulnerable to maltreatment.

Bullying Among School-Level Groups

NCES also reported different rates of bullying among different age groups. In general, middle school students were more likely to experience bullying than high school students.

NCES found the following rates of bullying among school-level groups:

  • sixth grade — 28.1%
  • seventh grade — 28%
  • eighth grade — 26.7%
  • ninth grade — 18.9%
  • 10th grade — 18.7%
  • 11th grade — 21.7%
  • 12th grade — 15.8%

The CDC likewise found that middle schools see higher rates of bullying. According to CDC research, middle schoolers report bullying at a rate of 28%.

High schools experience a bullying rate of 16%, combined schools experience 12%, and elementary schools experience 9%.

Adult Bullying

Although most resources on bullying focus on children, adults sometimes experience bullying as well. Often, this bullying occurs in the workplace and in college and university settings.

One survey on adult bullying found that 31% of adults experienced this type of maltreatment, both in person and online.

However, statistics vary widely among studies on adult bullying, and this may occur for several reasons.

For instance, many adults may associate the word “bullying” with children, and they may use other words to describe their experiences.

Furthermore, adults may not report bullying as often as children do, possibly due to shame and lack of help from authority figures.

What To Do If You’re Being Bullied

Bullying can make a person feel hopeless, and many believe that they don’t have any options for stopping the mistreatment.

However, if you are being bullied, you can take several steps to protect yourself and heal from the effects of the abuse.

Acknowledge The Bullying

The American Osteopathic Association, which published the above-cited poll on adult bullying, recommends acknowledging your experience by asking what you would call it if a friend had gone through it.

If another person were to describe your experience as if it had happened to them, what would you tell them? Would you label that experience as bullying, abuse, or something similar?

Seek Support

Bullies often choose targets who feel isolated. People who don’t have a lot of social support are more likely to experience bullying than those who have a lot of support.

Tell trusted friends or family members about your experiences, or confide in a therapist. Doing so can help validate your feelings and perspective.

Take Action

Next, take action to make the bullying stop. Your actions should depend on the type of bullying you experience.

For example, if you experience cyberbullying, save any harmful messages that the bully sends you.

This way, you’ll have evidence if you need to report the bully to law enforcement, a school official, or your workplace’s human resources department.

Other actions may include:

  • responding calmly to the bully’s actions
  • confronting the bully
  • staying in groups rather than being alone
  • blocking the bully on social media

Healing From The Effects Of Bullying

Even after the bullying has stopped, it can make a lasting impact on the person who has been targeted.

If you experience lasting repercussions, such as anxiety, low self-worth, and substance abuse, support from others can help you heal.

You may want to seek professional help, such as help from a counselor or addiction treatment center.

Addiction Treatment Services For Victims Of Bullying

If you experience substance abuse as a result of bullying, or if your loved one does, several treatment options are available.

These include inpatient addiction treatment, outpatient care, and several types of addiction therapy.

Resources For Students And Adults Regarding Bullying And Substance Use

Bullying and addiction create stressful circumstances, but help for both is available.

Here you’ll find resources for preventing bullying and helping people who are being bullied, along with some mental health and addiction resources.

Anti-Bullying Resources For Parents And Guardians

  • KnowBullying Mobile App: an app created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that helps parents recognize the signs of bullying and have meaningful conversations with their children
  • Protecting Kids Online: a series of guides from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on how to keep children safe online
  • Stomp Out Bullying Parents Page: free kits, tips, and guides for parents of children who are experiencing bullying

Anti-Bullying Resources For Students

  • Kids Against Bullying: from PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, tips and guides for children who are being bullied or who want to stop bullying others
  • NetSmartz Kids: games, videos, and interactive activities that teach children how to use the internet safely, including appropriate responses to cyberbullying, from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
  • Teens Against Bullying: anti-bullying actions for middle and high school students from the PACER Center

Anti-Bullying Resources For Teachers And Administrators

  • School-Based Bullying Prevention: from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, evidence-based resources to help schools prevent bullying
  • School Climate Improvement Resource Package: the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments’ guides, data, and other resources for teachers and administrators who want to improve the emotional climate of their schools

Anti-Bullying Resources For Employees And Employers

Mental Health And Substance Abuse Resources

  • FindTreatment.gov: a SAMHSA tool that helps people search for substance abuse and mental health treatment by location
  • Mental Health Literacy: a guide to mental health topics for children, teens, and adults, including teen behavior, addiction, and trauma disorders
  • The Trevor Project: mental health and other resources for LGBTQ teens
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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on