School-age adolescents who experience bullying are three times more likely to report access to a loaded gun, according to a new study from the University of Washington.
That could increase their chances of being involved in gun violence, already a leading cause of death and injury among teenagers in the United States, researchers say.
“This study looked at two risk factors that can occur within the same time period: bullying and gun access,” said lead author Maayan Simckes, a PhD student at the UW School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology. “One doesn’t necessarily cause the other, but when these two are both present, adolescents could be especially vulnerable to hurting themselves or others.”
Simckes analyzed data collected from more than 10,000 students aged 12 through 18 years who responded to the 2011 and 2013 School Crime Supplement (SCS) to the National Crime Victimization Survey. The SCS portion of the national survey is conducted every other year. Its questions are designed to ask students about their experiences and perceptions of their school environment, including bullying, school security, adult involvement, exposure and access to weapons and illicit substances, and presence of gangs. The results were published online Saturday in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
When looking strictly at adolescent students who reported being bullied, Simckes found that they were three times more likely to report access to a loaded gun than their non-bullied peers. A closer look at these results revealed that those who experienced traditional bullying (e.g., verbal, physical) were two times more likely to report access to a loaded gun without adult permission. Students who experienced cyberbullying (e.g. email, SMS, social media) were almost three times more likely, and students who experienced both types of bullying were six times more likely.
“The survey reaches a nationally representative sample of youth, which means that the results of this study can be interpreted at a national level,” Simckes said. “We’ve identified a high-risk population of adolescents.”
Thousands of adolescents are hurt or killed each year from gun-related injuries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, 9,297 teenagers sustained non-fatal gun-related injuries and 1,881 sustained fatal injuries. However, context is key for these statistics. There are many reasons why students could be involved in a gun-related injury or death, researchers say, including gang presence at school, mishandling a gun at home, or suicide.
Previous studies have found that bullied adolescents are more likely to have issues with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. They are also more likely to hurt themselves and to abuse substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana throughout their lives. When firearm access is added to the equation, the risk for interpersonal violence increases compared to those who are only targets of bullying.
“The strength of the association between reporting bullying and gun access is alarming,” said Simckes. “We’re not sure why bullied students are more likely to report access to guns, but we now know the risk is there and it is high. To answer this important question, researchers will need to conduct further studies.”
School-based bullying and gun access can both be measured and targeted by interventions—both at home and at school—to lower the risk of gun-related injuries and crimes. By studying the overlap of these two risk factors, researchers like Simckes hope to better understand how the risks can be communicated to parents of bullied children to reduce unsupervised access to guns.
“This research can also better support teachers and administrators in identifying bullied students and communicating with them and their families about preventing violence victimization and perpetration,” said Simckes. “Thankfully, knowing who the most vulnerable students are allows us to do more to help them.”
Researchers from the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, the University of Colorado, Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute specializing in injury, gun violence, and adolescent health co-authored this research with Simckes along with staff at the Bureau of Justice Statistics.