The Effects Of Bullying On A Teen’s Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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What do you think of when you hear the word “bully”? Maybe you think of a little kid pushing other students around on the playground, or an unknown user hurling insults on social media. Whatever actions or words come to mind, chances are there’s someone who ends up hurt, and the long-term effects of such behavior can include serious mental health issues such as low self-esteem or even depression. Bullying is not a victimless act, and the victims of bullying can experience negative physical and mental health symptoms. Luckily, there are ways to combat bullying in schools and find treatment for those in need of support.

Is your teen being bullied?

What is bullying?

Bullying is an act of harassment characterized by aggressive behavior, often involving a power imbalance between the bully and the bullied. The goal of a bully is typically to incite feelings of inferiority in the victim, thereby asserting their dominance in the social hierarchy. 

Bullying can range in intensity from relatively mild acts of aggression to criminal behavior that can severely impact the life of both the bully and the victim. 

Though it may be most common among young people, it is important to understand that bullying can affect social dynamics between individuals of any age.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 22% of teenage students in the US are bullied during the school year. This percentage accounts only for the bullying on school grounds; all incidents outside of school aren’t included in that number, so the true number of kids who are bullied in any area of their life is likely much higher. 

Types of bullying

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified four types of bullying behaviors: verbal, physical, social, and cyberbullying. These different forms can all be used to harass someone individually, but often a bully will engage in multiple forms of bullying at once. 

Verbal bullying

We’ve all heard that sticks and stones can break our bones and words will never hurt us, but the truth is, words can and do hurt. Verbal bullying is a type of bullying that involves insults, demeaning comments, or any other form of verbal or written abuse towards another individual. This abuse can range in severity from name-calling to more extreme slurs, threats of harm, or sexual comments.

Physical bullying

Being stuffed in a locker or tripped in the hallway are examples of physical bullying. This type of bullying includes any repeated harassment that causes physical harm to a person and/or their possessions. For harassment to be considered a type of bullying rather than an aggressive action, it has to involve a power imbalance, be a repetitive behavior, and be intended to cause harm.

Physical bullying can include actions like physically hitting or injuring, spitting on someone, breaking or otherwise damaging possessions, or making unwanted sexual advances.

Social bullying

The classic movie Mean Girls explains social bullying best with the iconic line, “You can’t sit with us!” Even though you may not have a Regina George at your school, social bullying is likely still a problem. Social bullying involves a bully intentionally sabotaging the social aspect of another person’s life. This sabotage can include behaviors such as spreading rumors and lies, encouraging exclusion, or damaging one’s social reputation by publicly embarrassing them. Often, social bullying occurs alongside verbal, physical, and cyberbullying.

Getty/MoMo Productions


Technology has undoubtedly improved our lives by connecting people worldwide and enabling strong communication. However, increased use of the internet has also led to some negative societal consequences, including cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a type of digital harassment through text, social media, or other forums. Examples of cyberbullying include sending hateful messages, making inappropriate posts or comments about someone, and impersonating the subject of harassment online.

Cyberbullying is especially frightening because, unlike more physical types of bullying, it is very hard to find an escape from the bully. Because many teens are in multiple online spaces, attackers can sometimes create different profiles and continue the harassment even if they are blocked or banned on one platform.

Effects of bullying on teens

Bullying can happen anywhere and to anyone, although it is commonly associated with middle or high school students. Workplaces, neighborhoods, and buses are just a few examples of other places where bullying can occur, and it might be a problem in your area, even if you don’t know it. It is important to know what to do when confronted with bullying and the effects it may have on the people who experience it.

There are many short and long-term effects of bullying that kids, teens, and even adults can experience, both physical and mental. Negative bullying effects do not just impact the bullying victim, but also those witnessing the bullying and even the bully themselves. It is important to know about the fallout of bullying so you can receive the support you need if you have experienced, witnessed, or participated in bullying.

Teens who are bullied

There’s no doubt that childhood bullying can have lasting effects on a teen’s emotional health and academic performance. Bullying can incite a range of mental health effects, including:

  • Fear of situations where one may be vulnerable to bullies, such as going to school, riding the bus, or being alone in the hallway

  • Increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, disordered eating patterns and other psychiatric conditions

  • Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence

  • Academic difficulties, including lower levels of participation and achievement

  • Higher risk of dropping out

  • Physical illness and other health complaints

  • Substance use and an increased tendency to abuse alcohol and other drugs

  • Learned helplessness

  • Higher probability of engaging in early sexual activity, or being pressured into sexual activity one is not comfortable participating in

  • Self-harm urges, suicidal ideation, or suicidal behavior

Teens who witness bullying victimization

As you might imagine, watching someone be harassed can seriously impact someone’s well-being, particularly if the bystander feels unable to intervene. Witnesses may experience intense feelings related to their proximity to bullying, including:

  • A desire to skip school, leave work, or otherwise remove themselves from the situation

  • Feelings of fear or guilt for not stepping in

  • Engaging in self-blaming and self-tormenting behavior

  • Experiencing pressure to engage in bullying

  • Increased mental health problems

  • Developing a dependence on substances

Teens who engage in bullying behaviors

This fact might be a bit surprising, but the act of bullying someone can take a huge psychological toll on the aggressor and their future. Studies show that 60% of boys who were bullies in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by 24.

Some of the common effects of bullying on those who are the aggressors include an increased likelihood of:

  • Abusing alcohol, drugs, and other substances into adulthood

  • Participating in fights

  • Dropping out of school

  • Having criminal convictions as adults

  • Struggling to maintain and develop healthy relationships

  • Having difficulty understanding boundaries and limits

  • Abusing romantic partners, family, or children as adult

Whether a teen is the target, witness, or perpetrator of bullying, there is a high risk of long-term damage to their mental well-being.

Research suggests that 5.4 million students experience anxiety related to bullying, and as a direct result of that anxiety, miss school at some point during the school year. Nearly one-quarter of tenth graders who reported being bullied also reported having made a suicide attempt in the past 12 months, according to a Washington State Healthy Youth Survey.

It is important to note that many factors contribute to why a teenager would contemplate extremely violent measures such as suicide and that bullying is not the only cause. However, there is likely a link between the two.

Is your teen being bullied?

How to get help

In the United States, there are many programs in place to help prevent bullying in schools. Although it may be hard to eradicate bullying entirely, working on your own mental health can largely reduce the risk of future negative effects, whether you are a bully, you’re being bullied, or you’re a bystander.

Anti-bullying programs

Many programs exist for the sole purpose of stomping out school bullying, creating a safer classroom environment, and supporting bullied children. 

For example, the Positive Action anti-bullying program teaches a curriculum to both children and parents that is proven to decrease not only bullying behaviors but the long-term negative impacts of bullying. Program participants are 38% more likely to continue pursuing education after graduating from high school. 

Another noteworthy anti-bullying program is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP), which targets children aged 5-15. As stated on their website, their program has resulted in “fifty percent or more reductions in student reports of being bullied and bullying others.” 

Teaching about the dangers of bullying

A formal program can be a great option, but such programs are expensive, and not every school has the resources to implement such a program. If an anti-bullying program isn’t feasible, there are many other ways to create an anti-bullying environment in a school. 

For example, it may be helpful to have younger students write and perform a skit about bullying for their classmates. In this way, they will be able to research and learn about the dangers of bullying while having fun. For older kids, it may be wise to hold open conversations where students feel comfortable and safe being honest while learning from their peers. If bullying is a problem at a school, engage with the subject head-on to maximize the probability of interventions making a difference in students’ lives. 

Talking to a trusted adult

If you are being bullied, you may feel stuck and alone, which is a normal reaction to your situation. However, it is essential to remember that your school and other trusted adults are there to help and support you. Many teachers and faculty are trained in addressing bullying and can offer the help you may need while keeping you safe. If you have a counselor or psychologist at your school, they can also be a great resource for you. 

Online therapy for bullied teens

Talking to a mental health professional can be a more personalized option for dealing with bullying and its negative effects on mental health. Meeting with a therapist can help you build up a strong support system and healthy coping mechanisms. Depending on your situation, online therapy through a service such as BetterHelp (for people over the age of 18) or TeenCounseling (for people aged 13-19) may be helpful. These services will match you with a licensed therapist virtually and can be less expensive than in-person therapy.

Additionally, studies have shown that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy for treating mental health conditions that are common in teens, such as mood disorders. One study found that the growing prevalence of online therapy providers for teens has been successful at least in part because the environment is more familiar to adolescents, allowing them to express themselves more fully.


Bullying affects many students in the US today, and the consequences can harm everyone involved. Whether you have been bullied, witnessed bullying, or bullied someone else, no one deserves to experience the harmful effects bullying can have on their mental health. There are many ways to find support, so reach out and take action today.

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