January 1st, 2013

Exploring a beer-bullying connection

In an effort to better understand the underlying reasons and the psychological under pining of individuals who engage in socially aggressive behavior, researchers have been exploring a possible connection between alcohol and substance use and bullying. The April 2012 issue of Additive Behaviors published the findings of a study that report such a link.

Researchers at Ohio State University surveyed nearly 75,000 middle and high school students in Franklin County, Ohio regarding their cigarette, alcohol and marijuana use and bullying incidents. Findings indicate that 11.4 percent of middle school students classified as bullies use marijuana; 6.1 percent of bully-victims (those who both perpetrate the behavior and who are also victims) used the drug. Among high school students, 31.7 percent of those who bullied used the substance and 29.2 percent of bully-victims reported using marijuana. Alcohol and cigarette use fell into similar patterns.

The study authors determine that the “statistically higher than expected levels of substance use among bullies and bully-victims suggest a relationship between experimenting with substances and engaging in bullying behavior.” They surmise “engaging in one deviant behavior increases the likelihood of engaging in another,” which indicates a need for prevention programs that address bullying as well as substance use.

Katie Liebenberg, Psy.D., private practitioner in Westport, Conn., views substance use and bullying as a “chicken-and-egg” issue. “It goes both ways. Teens are looking for an external source to remedy an internal situation,” she says, explaining that youth with intense emotions can be disconnected and fail to establish strong relationships. “The bully is taking out his anger and targeting another,” she adds. “The substance user is filling a void, coping with emotions and not introspecting or internalizing.”

Liebenberg explains that a combination of personality and environment can create the basis for aberrant behavior and points out that youth are at higher risk when there is a family history of substance abuse. “These kids have seen harmful behaviors. They’ve seen violence,” she says. “There is a genetic and environmental connection, especially with boys, who tend to struggle to express their emotions.”

Some type of treatment should begin during the middle school years, according to Liebenberg, whose research focuses on boys. She notes that early intervention is key to long-term positive outcomes.

Elizabeth K. Englander, Ph.D., director of the Massachusetts Aggression Education Center and professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University, finds that those who bully are more risk tolerant. “They drink, take drugs and are attracted by the social status they gain,” she says, and emphasizes the importance of identifying the motives behind such actions. “What’s going on with them? Is the pull stronger or are the brakes not there?”

According to Mark Beitel, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, a small, but unclear, connection exists between substance use and bullying behavior. “More research needs to be done,” he says.

By Phyllis Hanlon

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