Teen girls smoke and drink to cope with bullying more than boys do

June 4, 2021
More prone to bullying than boys, teen girls are more likely to turn to illicit substances as coping mechanisms.  (Unsplash/Thomas John)

More prone to bullying than boys, teen girls are more likely to turn to illicit substances as coping mechanisms. (Unsplash/Thomas John)

Girls are more likely than boys to be bullied by their peers, and they may be disproportionately turning to illicit substances such as alcohol and marijuana as a result, according to a new analysis of data from 2011 through 2017, obtained through the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which collects demographic and health behavior information from U.S. high school students.

In a paper published April 23 in Crime & Delinquency, a group of researchers studied how bullying affected adolescent victims and their relationship with alcohol, cigarettes, e-vapes and marijuana. Bullying was associated with increased use of all the illicit substances among the teens, but in the last 10 years, this adverse effect has been more pronounced among girls than among boys, which could be a result of declining physical bullying in schools and rising cyberbullying through social media.

Nancy M.H. Pontes, first author of the paper and an assistant professor at Rutgers University, told The Academic Times that she has worked on research using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey since 2016, in collaboration with her husband Manuel C.F. Pontes, senior author of the paper and a marketing professor at Rowan University. 

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is carried out by a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has been collecting data from U.S. teenagers since 1991. In a prior study that also used Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, Nancy and Manuel found that between 2009 and 2015, male students reported a 16% decrease in school bullying victimization, while female students reported a 17% increase. 

For the current paper, the couple collaborated with senior author Emily R. Strohacker, a criminal justice professor at Penn State Harrisburg. They wanted to study the impact of physical bullying and cyberbullying on illicit substance use in teens to see if there were differences in the effects that related to gender.

"Bullying victimization definitely appears to be a risk factor for all of the substance-use parameters that we looked at, which were alcohol use, binge drinking, cigarette smoking, e-vaping and smoking marijuana," Nancy said.

"While bullying has long been considered as an adolescent 'rite of passage,' more recently bullying victimization has been reframed as an adverse childhood experience that has the potential for short-term and life-long consequences," the authors said in the paper. 

Children who are bullied are more likely to be anxious, depressed and suicidal. They are also more prone to violence-related behaviors, such as carrying weapons, according to research that the authors cited in the paper. 

The current project analyzed data from the survey collected in four waves from 2011-2017 from 59,397 respondents. The questions asked whether the teens had smoked or drunk each illicit substance in the past 30 days, and separately asked whether they had been bullied on school property or electronically bullied in the past 12 months. 

All forms of bullying were more commonly experienced by girls: 31% reported being bullied in the last 12 months, while 20.1% of boys said the same. Alcohol was the top substance used by both genders. Notably, for all substances except e-vapes, girls who were bullied used substances at higher rates than boys who were bullied.

"Bullying victimization was significantly associated with binge drinking among female but not male students," the authors said, and girls who were bullied reported binge drinking more often than boys who were bullied in the month prior to the survey.

"We compared the effect sizes in female high school students and male high school students, and we found that [it] was much larger among females. They are more adversely affected," Manuel said. 

In their analysis, the authors used the framework of General Strain Theory, which is prominent in criminal justice research. In this context, it means that the strain an individual experiences from being bullied may result in negative coping behaviors, such as substance use and other delinquent behaviors. 

"I think what's happening in the bullying situation at schools right now is two things," Nancy said. "One is that schools are really cracking down on bullying. But how do you stop relational bullying?" Subtler than direct physical abuse, relational bullying involves excluding people and spreading rumors. "That's much harder to stop than physical bullying like pushing and shoving," she continued.

Manuel agreed that the lower numbers of bullied boys is likely an indication that school intervention programs against traditional bullying, such as allowing for anonymous reporting of bullying by bystanders, have been working. He explained that certain legislation, such as laws mandating cameras in schools, can also prevent physical bullying. But it's much more difficult to employ concrete solutions to stop the exclusion or isolation of others, even though this form of bullying can be as psychologically damaging as physical bullying, he said.

"The second thing I think that's influencing [current bullying] is the rise of online and other forms of electronic cyberbullying," Nancy said. "Both genders participate in that, but females are more likely than males. And so that probably also impacts some of that data."

To combat relational bullying in particular, Strohacker and her colleagues said that parents need to get more involved, have more open discussions with their children and listen to them. Nancy noted that parents have tended to take a hands-off approach to bullying in the past, but continuing to view bullying as a "rite of passage" in childhood is damaging. She believes parents have the power to help their kids better navigate these situations. 

"I think another big thing is school involvement. I think it is very normal for schools of course to be involved when it is physical bullying, but it's become this kind of standoffish approach when it is something that takes place through technology," Strohacker said.

"The schools typically take the stance that if you can't prove that it happened on school grounds, it's not really a school issue," she continued. "And I can understand completely why they would take that stance, considering the lack of funding and the lack of support that a lot of schools have. They can only take on so much. But I do think that it is important [to note] that these things, just because they happen through cell phones and laptops, they still resonate with students when they are at school." 

The authors cited a recommendation from the Report of the Attorney General's National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, which states that children exposed to violence need "coordinated and adaptive approaches to improve the quality of trauma-specific treatments and trauma-focused services" across various disciplines and settings.

Early victimization as a child through bullying can impact how an individual acts later in life, the authors said — they may develop addictions or patterns of reliance on negative coping mechanisms, which can range from drinking and illicit drug use to more violent and criminal behaviors.

"If you come across a student who is using substances, you also should be asking yourself, what might be some underlying risk factors related to this?" Nancy said. "[Consider] taking that broader perspective, stepping back, and looking at this whole concept of adverse childhood experiences as a social determinant of health."

The study, "Bullying victimization is associated with a significantly greater risk of illicit substance use among US female adolescents: YRBS 2011 to 2017," published April 23 in Crime & Delinquency, was authored by Nancy M.H. Pontes, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; Emily R. Strohacker, Penn State Harrisburg; and Manuel C.F. Pontes, Rowan University.

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