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Researchers looking at the relationship between bullying and substance use in teens are coming up with some surprising findings. This is especially true in the area of bullying victimization and substance use, according to Amanda Nickerson, PhD, Professor and Director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, Graduate School of Education at the University of Buffalo in New York.
“A fair amount of research has found higher rates of substance use among bullying perpetrators,” says Dr. Nickerson, who spoke about bullying and substance use at the recent National Prevention Network annual research conference. “Substance use may be one part of a cluster of problem behaviors, as well as aggressive and rule-breaking behaviors, among bullying perpetrators.”
Certain factors that lead to bullying perpetration may also lead to substance use, such as less parental monitoring and having a more difficult temperament. Some of the motives may be the same for bullying and substance use, such as sensation seeking or trying to obtain higher social status, Dr. Nickerson said.
Findings to date about bullying victimization and substance use have been mixed, she notes. “Some people have found there isn’t a link. Others have found kids who are victimized and also bully others are more likely to engage in substance use, but pure victims are not.”
Some research suggests bullying victims are more likely to be depressed or withdrawn, which may protect against substance use. “If they are more withdrawn, they may shy away from peers who are using substances,” she says. Other research suggests that bullying victims may use substances to try to reduce the stress that comes from being bullied. “We have found that to be true more in adulthood and more in females,” Dr. Nickerson observes. “We’re looking more deeply at that question in adolescents.”
Dr. Nickerson, along with colleagues Jennifer Livingston, PhD (the principal investigator) and Kathleen Miller, PhD, are conducting a longitudinal study of 13- to 15-year-olds looking at teen health and relationships. The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has enrolled about 800 teens so far. They answer questions at the beginning of the study, and then every six months for two years.
One subset of teens who say they have been bullied is providing information online daily for eight weeks on their experience of being bullied, coping strategies, and whether they are using substances. “We are trying to figure out whether starting to use substances is related to their bullying experiences,” Dr. Nickerson said. “We’re looking for risks and protective factors—are there particular things about them, their family situations or coping strategies that protect against substance use?” Overall about one-quarter of the teens in the study say they have been bullied.
The researchers, led by Dr. Miller, are also examining the relationship between caffeinated energy drinks and bullying. “We want to see if there are differences between young teens who use energy drinks and those who don’t in terms of bullying victimization and perpetration,” Dr. Nickerson says. “We have found that teens who use energy drinks are three to 10 times more likely to engage in other problem behaviors, such as smoking, trying alcohol and illicit drugs, and having sexual intercourse, compared with their peers who don’t use energy drinks.”
While they did not find any link between bullying perpetration and energy drink use, they were surprised to find a link between energy drink use and bullying victimization. “We want to further examine this, and see what may be involved in this, such as social skills, hyperactivity or anxiety. Are they being victimized and using energy drinks to cope, or are they using energy drinks as part of anxious behavior and this leads to victimization?” Dr. Nickerson said.
She added, “Our findings are preliminary, and we are by no means saying energy drink use causes bullying. This is a new area, and we think parents need to be educated about energy drink use.”
Another area they are studying, led by Dr. Livingston, is the relationship between bullying victimization, alcohol use and parental support. The researchers looked at 119 kids who said at the beginning of the study that they had consumed alcohol in the past month. They found teens who were severely bullied and who had strong support from their mothers and family cohesion—such as family members asking each other for help and spending free time together—were less likely to drink than bullied teens without strong maternal support and tight family bonds.
“This tells us there is something about parental support that makes them less likely to drink if they are severely bullied,” Dr. Nickerson says. “Often parents of adolescents don’t think they’re making a difference. This suggests they do. It is clear that listening to their child, and believing them when they say they are being bullied, is really critical.”