A new study shows some cautious optimism for bullied students moving into college. Although they remain at higher risk for anxiety and depression, many report an active social life, strong academic achievement, and a positive college experience.
Though past bullying is a burden, college can give young adults a chance to start over, says Melissa Holt, assistant professor in counseling psychology at Boston University. “The overall picture is hopeful.”
The Centers for Disease Control defines bullying as any unwanted, aggressive behavior that is repeated multiple times and involves an imbalance of power. Researchers know that bullying can cause lasting damage—adults who were bullied as children are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and further victimization.
“Nobody in the field had really focused on college as an environment,” Holt says. “Would entering college be a time of heightened risk? Or would the new environment offer students a chance to redefine themselves? Those were the questions we wanted to answer.”
Holt and Jennifer Green, assistant professor in special education, have studied the effects of bullying for years, but it was questions from parents that prodded them into this specific area of research. “We were doing some assessments of high school students who had been bullied, and their parents were asking us what to expect, if their kids would be OK when they got to college,” Green says. “We didn’t know what to tell them.”
Research has shown college entry to be a time of increased independence, and also increased stress. “There are great new opportunities,” says Green, “but also new academic and social challenges, as well as identity adjustments.”
To see how past bullying might figure into the mix, the researchers surveyed 413 students at a large northeastern university via email in February of their first year.
The results showed reason for optimism, with many students reporting strong friendships and a sense of belonging. “In contrast to studies of childhood bullying that find that child victims of bullying report lack of engagement in school and weaker peer relationships in general, our results suggest that previously bullied youth might be hopeful about their college experience,” write the authors in the Journal of American College Health.
The pilot study led the scientists to wonder about specific patterns of adjustment: did some students adapt better to college, and if so, why? To answer this question, they began a larger study in 2013, surveying students at four geographically diverse universities in the fall and spring of their first college year. The researchers are now conducting follow-up surveys and in-person interviews with those same students, now seniors. The data, while still preliminary, have already offered some insight.
“We’ve started to find differences in the trajectories of students over time,” says Green, who adds that a key to successful adjustment seems to be informal social support—the ability to make and keep friends during college.