Students who watch peers being bullied verbally or physically, could become as distressed if not more so, by the events than the victims themselves.
Bullies and bystanders may also be more likely to take drugs and drink alcohol, according to these findings.
“Children and adolescents who are exposed to violence within their families or outside of school are at a greater risk for mental health problems than those children who are not exposed to any violence,” said Ian Rivers of Brunel University, who led the study.
Researchers surveyed 2,002 students aged 12 to 16 years at 14 public schools in England.
The students were presented with a list of numerous bullying behaviours, such as name-calling, kicking, hitting, spreading rumours and threatening violence.
The students indicated whether they had committed, witnessed or been the victim of any of these behaviours during the previous nine-week school term and, if so, how often.
The majority, 63 percent, said they witnessed peers being bullied. Thirty-four percent of respondents said they had been victims and 20 percent said they had been perpetrators.
Twenty-eight percent said they were completely uninvolved in any bullying episodes. Girls reported seeing bullying more than boys.
The students also answered whether they experienced certain symptoms of psychological distress, such as feelings of depression, anxiety, hostility and inferiority. They also were asked if they had ever tried or used cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs.
Students who witnessed acts of bullying were more likely to report greater psychological distress than those students who were bullies or victims, according to the results.
This was the case even for students who had not been victims themselves, although being both a witness and a victim did also significantly predict mental health problems.
“It is possible that those students who had been victimised at different times may be experiencing it all over again psychologically,” said Rivers, professor of human development.
“Meanwhile, those who are witnesses may worry that they, too, will be the bully’s target sometime in the future and that causes great distress and anxiety,” he added, according to a Brunel release.
Rivers, along with co-author Paul Poteat, Boston College, hopes this study will encourage schools to be more aware of the possible impact simply witnessing acts of bullying can have upon the mental health of their students.
These findings were published in the December issue of School Psychology Quarterly.