Bullying and Substance Use Disorder: More Connected than You Think

Bullying goes far beyond such childish acts as joking around, rough-housing or teasing. It is defined as repeated, undesired and aggressive behavior that involves an inequality of power. This power can be psychological, physical or social.

We’re taught that the world rewards winners. For some, this means working hard to achieve your goals, while for others it means they can steal, lie or cheat to gain power over others. The latter often go to extremes to knock others down in order to boost themselves up by mocking, degrading and criticizing others. These people are known as bullies and unfortunately, this type of behavior often begins at a very young age.

Bullying is not merely a rite of passage. It has become a universal issue in schools and online and is having devastating effects on not only the bullied but the bully as well. Recent research even suggests that there is a very strong connection between bullying and substance use in young people. The statistics may come as an alarming surprise.

The Reality of Bullying

Statistics about bullying are shocking

  • Nearly 20% of high school students are bullied at school
  • Almost 52% of kids experience cyberbullying
  • School-age kids who experience bullying are at a much greater risk of using alcohol or other drugs than those not involved in bullying
  • More than 17% of kids try an illicit drug by the 8th grade
  • Bullying is most prominent in middle school, while substance use disorder is most common among high school students

 Kinds of Bullying/Cyberbullying

While it may be true that horsing around or playful teasing doesn’t result in serious issues, aggressive and unwanted interactions between school-age kids are what experts consider bullying. With the internet and social media so widely used among kids, bullying doesn’t always happen face-to-face.

 In-Person Bullying

There are 3 main types of this type of bullying:

  • Verbal bullying includes both saying and writing mean things in the form of name-calling, threats, and mean-spirited teasing, among others
  • Physical bullying involves damaging another’s body or belongings and can include kicking, punching, pushing, slapping or taking or damaging another’s belongings, among others


This type of bullying occurs online and includes harassment via text messages, spreading rumors, and posting embarrassing pictures or videos on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

The Relationship Between Bullying and Substance Use Disorder

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) further defines bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, involving an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” In other words, bullying involves relentless attacks, whether physical, emotional or social.

When a kid is bullied, they often experience profound distress and are 6 times more likely to smoke regularly or be diagnosed with a serious illness or mental health disorder. Furthermore, victims of bullying often develop behavioral disorders like anxiety and depression. When combined with existing low self-esteem, this can spur experimentation with alcohol or drugs to cope with the powerlessness that being bullied makes them feel.

However, it’s not just the bullied who are at risk. Experts agree that bullies are as likely, if not more so, to use alcohol or drugs as the victims of bullying. The theory is that kids who are aggressive at an early age often seek out other kids who are ‘non-rule governed’. Those who bully are also more likely to develop behavioral problems such as poor school performance, vandalizing property and early sexual activity. They are also more likely to use alcohol or drugs well before their peers.

Studies show that both perpetrators and victims of bullying are more apt to use nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana. These substances are viewed by many as experimental, but they have proven to be gateways into harder drugs such as opioids, meth or cocaine, and it’s not uncommon for these drugs to be used on school campuses. When kids struggle with low self-esteem in combination with a mental disorder, they may feel that drug use eases their pain without realizing that it is actually creating a vicious cycle of dangerous self-medication.

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Overlapping Signs and Symptoms of Bullying and Substance Use Disorder

To make matters more complex, the red flags associated with both bullying and a substance use disorder (SUD) overlap extensively. As a parent, teacher or friend who is concerned about the warning signs of bullying and/or substance use disorder, it’s important to be aware of these types of behaviors.

Warning Signs of Bullying

  • Signs of anxiety or depression
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Signs of an eating disorder
  • Poor academic achievement
  • School attendance issues
  • Lack of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Drug or alcohol use

Signs of a Substance Use Disorder

  • Erratic behavior or mood swings
  • Poor school or work performance
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Insomnia
  • Skin conditions
  • Health complaints
  • Withdrawal from social interactions
  • Uncharacteristic lying
  • Secretive behavior

Bullying and Future Drug Use

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics interviewed nearly 5,000 students in Texas, California, and Alabama during the 5th, 7th and 10th grades and found that kids who were bullied in the 5th grade were more apt to use tobacco, alcohol or marijuana by the 10th grade.

Preventing Bullying: Be More than a Bystander

It’s important to realize that the reality of the connection between bullying and substance use disorder is an issue not to be taken lightly by those not involved in the bullying. Whether you’re a concerned educator, worried parent, friend or bystander, there are effective ways to intervene and nip bullying in the bud to prevent alcohol and drug addiction in adolescents.

  • Educate yourself about adolescents and addiction via online resource portals on anti-bullying websites.
  • For educators, improve supervision of students by enacting a school-wide anti-bullying policy and increase communication with parents and guardians.
  • For parents, consider rehabilitative care or counseling for your child or teen who may be struggling with bullying and/or substance use disorder.

If you are concerned about a child or teen who may have a substance use disorder, contact an addiction treatment facility today to get the professional help they need before it’s too late.

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Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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