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New Research Dispels Popular Myth that a Bully’s Words Will Never Hurt You

Originally published 15 April 2003

Research by Dr Stephen Joseph a psychologist at the University of Warwick into bullying at Secondary Schools dispels the well-known saying "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me".

Contrary to popular belief the study reveals that verbal-victimisation has a particular impact on the victim’s feeling of self-worth, and that name-calling can significantly reduce self-esteem. In fact, verbal abuse can have more impact upon victims’ self-worth than physical attacks, such as punching, or attacks on property, such as stealing or the destruction of belongings.

The study into bullying and posttraumatic stress in adolescents assessed 331 school pupils in England and reveals that as many as 40% were bullied at some time during their schooling. It suggests that one third of bullied children may suffer from clinically significant levels of posttraumatic stress – so rather than helping to toughen up school pupils, bullying could seriously affect their mental health.

The research paper entitled “Peer- victimisation and posttraumatic stress in adolescents” examines the levels of posttraumatic stress experienced and the impact of bullying on the self-worth on victims. Bullying is stressful and can affect adolescents both emotionally and physically, and the results indicate that different forms of abuse have distinct effects on victims.

To analyse the effects of different types of aggression a “Victim Scale” was used to assess the experience of physical victimisation, verbal victimisation, social manipulation and attacks on property. All types of bullying result in lower self-esteem, but social manipulation, such as excluding the victim from taking part in games, is more likely to lead to posttraumatic stress, and verbal taunts typically lead to lower self-worth.

The study also suggests that verbal bullying or social manipulation can lead to victims feeling helpless and that they lack control over their own feelings and actions. Those who feel that power and control lie with the bully, rather than internally, are much more likely to suffer from posttraumatic stress or lower self-worth.

Dr Stephen Joseph, from the University of Warwick, said: “This study reveals that bullying and particularly name calling can be degrading for adolescents. Posttraumatic stress is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a frightening event or ordeal in which physical harm occurred or was threatened, and research clearly suggests that it can be caused by bullying. It is important that peer victimisation is taken seriously as symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and depression are common amongst victims and have a negative impact on psychological health.”

For more information contact: Dr Stephen Joseph, University of Warwick,
Mobile: 0786 780 0320 Tel: 02476 528 182 or Jenny Murray, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574255, Mobile: 07876 217740,

"Peer- victimisation and posttraumatic stress in adolescents", co-authored by Helen Mynard and Jane Alexander from the University of Essex appeared in "Personality and Individual Differences" 29, 815-82