Expert Commentary

Income inequality and bullying linked in new study

New research in JAMA Pediatrics finds an association between spending early childhood in a country with wide income inequality and being bullied during early adolescence.

Photo by chuttersnap via Unsplash

Growing up in a country with wide income inequality is associated with being bullied during early adolescence, according to a new paper in JAMA Pediatrics from nine researchers representing universities around the world.

The authors analyzed survey responses from 874,203 kids aged 11 to 15 across 40 countries, mostly in Europe and North America. They found the strongest association between these experiences:

  • Living from birth to 4 in areas with high income inequality.
  • Being bullied at school.

Put another way, there is a link between early life inequality and being bullied at school later in life.

“Being a developmental psychologist, I’m interested in the early life effects — when does this [association] get under the skin?” says lead author Frank Elgar, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal. “Here, the most consequential exposure is infancy.”

What’s happening is unclear, but it’s happening before kids start going to school

The team from universities in Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland and Ireland pooled data from 1994 to 2014 from the World Health Organization’s Health Behavior in School-Aged Children, a cross-national survey conducted every four years.

The data span time and geography, but the survey doesn’t intentionally re-survey the same children across years. It provides a snapshot every four years of key health indicators among children aged 11 to 15.

Some countries did not participate in every survey. The U.S. did not participate in 1994 and 2014.

“There were interruptions, [countries] dropped out due to financial reasons,” Elgar says.

Given the sheer number of survey participants, Elgar is confident in the association between early exposure to income inequality and being bullied later in life. But the strength of the association is unclear.

“The associations we found are consistent and reinforce the literature showing that income inequality is related to interpersonal violence and various measures of decreased social capital,” Elgar says.

Anti-bullying efforts at schools are important for reducing bullying, according to the authors, but these results indicate that schools can’t do everything. What’s happening at home also matters.

“That the effect is there before they reach school age suggests it’s not an outcome, not a product of school resources or programming,” Elgar says.

Walk, don’t run with these results

The number of survey participants is massive and the authors control for several variables — changes in inequality from birth to when bullying was captured, national per capita income, family socioeconomic position, and birth year — but they couldn’t control for everything.

“Kids in more unequal settings probably had a range of other factors that we can’t control for,” Elgar says.

The WHO data define bullying in broad strokes, with questions adapted from the 40-question Olweus Bully-Victim Questionnaire. Questions included:

  • How often have you been bullied at school during the past couple of months?
  • How often have you taken part in bullying other students during the past couple of months?

The authors did not associate early-life inequality and being a bully, a result they call “unexpected.” The reason may have to do with self-reporting. The questionnaire is better at capturing results about being bullied than bullying, according to the authors.

In other words, kids seem to be more forthcoming when they’re being bullied than when they’re doing the bullying. This work appears to be a jumping off point for further study — not a final word.

“Although the study found that income inequality is associated with later violence, more robust surveillance efforts and further research are needed to understand the psychosocial and physiological mechanisms that explain why children that grow up in more economically unequal settings are at greater risk,” the authors conclude.

Something for the journalists in the audience

The association is not between poverty and bullying, it’s between inequality and bullying. Elgar offers this for journalists to keep in mind:

“Usually when we think of poverty and inequality, we think about growing up poor. This is the effect of growing up in an unequal setting and it’s interesting to think it might change the course of a kid’s development.”

Check out some of our related coverage, including research comparing fear of bullying between college students of color and white students, and this research roundup on bullying and teen suicide.

About The Author