Teen bullying has long-term consequences for both the bully and the victim, including an increased risk of addiction.

Most people have experienced some form of bullying, and others — even if they don’t want to admit it — have participated in the bullying of others.

Bullying is aggressive, deliberate and unwanted behavior involving a real or perceived imbalance of power. Bullying is common and easy to spot amongst school-age children but also exists to varying degrees in the adult world.

Teen bullying has many consequences and one of them is an increased risk of teen substance abuse. Other problems include an increased risk of mental health problems and physical health complaints. Some consequences of bullying are permanent and last into adulthood.

Prevalence of Bullying Among Teens

The National Center for Education Statistics tracks data about school crime and victimization in the United States. They look at school children ages 12–18 and have been tracking teen bullying statistics since 2005.

Since 2005, the number of students between the ages of 12–18 who reported being victims of bullying was 29%. In 2017, the number had fallen to 20%.

The downward prevalence of bullying in schools is encouraging and has decreased for students of all genders, races, age groups and socioeconomic situations. Notably, bullying has increased for students in rural areas since 2015, increasing to 27%, about the same as in 2005.

Teens who are more at risk of bullying are those that:

  • Are less popular or have fewer friends
  • Are viewed as different by peers, like differences in weight, clothes, ethnicity or race
  • Have a mental health issue like depression or anxiety
  • Have trouble socializing with peers
  • Are seen as weak, physically or emotionally

Teens with an increased risk that they will exhibit bullying behavior are those that:

  • Are aggressive or easily frustrated
  • Have friends who are bullies
  • Have trouble at home, like violence and bullying by siblings or parents
  • Have trouble following rules
  • View violence positively

Types of Bullying Behavior

Bullying behavior falls into a few different broad categories. Verbal, physical and relational bullying has been recognized for years, but cyberbullying is an emerging category that we are just beginning to study.

All types of bullying involve unwanted, repetitive aggression and an imbalance of power, but the reasons someone bullies another can vary as well.

The four types of bullying that are studied include:

  • Verbal Bullying: Using teasing or name-calling to cause emotional damage to a victim. Bullies may taunt and threaten harm, or older bullies and adults may make inappropriate sexual comments.
  • Physical Bullying: Can involve hitting, kicking or pinching. Bullies might also trip or push a victim or break or damage their possessions.
  • Relational Bullying: Also called social bullying. This type of bullying revolves around making someone feel excluded or unwanted from a group. Bullies may spread embarrassing rumors or tell other children not to be friends with the victim.
  • Cyberbullying: Has arisen with the emergence of technology, like computers and cell phones. The imbalance of power in cyberbullying varies from traditional forms of bullying because it involves an imbalance in knowledge, proficiency or the possession of potentially embarrassing content.

Bullying has been linked to higher rates of substance abuse. Kids and teens who bully others are at a higher risk of substance abuse, as well as problems in school and violence later in life. Those who bully others also experience higher rates of substance abuse and mental health issues.

  • The “Bully” and Substance Abuse: Studies have shown a link between bullies who participate in violence and drug use. Bullies are more likely than students who do not bully to engage in substance abuse. Substance abuse may be related to the bully’s desire to fit in with a friend group and be social.
  • The “Victim” and Substance Abuse: Victims of bullying have an increased likelihood of engaging in substance abuse behaviors — about the same as bullies.
  • The “Bully-Victims” and Substance Abuse: A bully-victim is someone that is that victim of bullying by others and then goes on to bully themselves. The classic example of bully-victims are kids with a sibling or adult at home that bullies them. They may engage in bullying behavior to ease their pain and anxiety from being a victim. Bully-victims have the highest levels of substance abuse. Several studies back up this finding, including one published in the journal Addictive Behaviors and another in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

Recognizing Teen Victims of Bullying

Recognizing the symptoms and effects of bullying is critical because kids and teens often do not report bullying. They may fear retaliation from the bully or that they will appear “weak” if they report it.

People also feel shame about being the victim of bullying and may refuse to talk about it. For this reason, recognizing the signs of a bully victim are critical. The signs may include:

  • Lost or destroyed books, clothing, electronics or other items
  • Not wanting to attend school or skipping school
  • Poor eating habits or stomach aches 
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-harm behaviors or suicidal thoughts
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Sudden or new loneliness, depression or anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping with or without nightmares
  • Trouble with grades
  • Unexplained injuries

Signs of Teen Substance Abuse

A major challenge of recognizing drug abuse in teens is separating the symptoms of substance abuse from normal changes during aging.

“Symptoms” perceived as related to drug abuse should never be considered strong evidence without proof of drug use or someone admitting drug use.

However, the signs of drug use can be a useful starting point for a conversation. Symptoms are different depending on the drug of abuse, but in general, may include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in friend group
  • Energy levels higher or lower than normal for a long period
  • Eyes moving too fast
  • Losing interest in normal activities
  • Newly lying or stealing
  • Pupils that are too big or too small
  • Rapid and fast speech
  • Slurred or slowed speech
  • Strange odors on the breath
  • Stumbling or an unsteady walk
  • Unexplained cough
  • Unusually high appetite
  • Low appetite for a long period
  • Worsening grades in school

If you are concerned your teen friend or child is the victim of bullying, consider speaking with professionals at their school. If substance abuse has become a factor, The Recovery Village has resources available for evaluation and treatment. Call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative that can help you discover the right treatment options.

Megan Hull
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
Conor Sheehy
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

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StopBullying.gov. “What Is Bullying?“>What Is Bullying?” 2017. Accessed July 28, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.