CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Can a bully’s behavior at school lead to a dangerous cycle of violence, turning their victim into the attacker? A new study finds young people who are the victims of a bully are more likely to daydream about hurting or even killing others.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge asked teens about their darkest fantasies and discovered a link between violent thoughts and several forms of mistreatment. These include taunting, assault, experiencing abusive parenting, or a peer pressuring them into sex.
While a majority of teenagers end up on the receiving end of some form of negative behavior, the study finds young people who experience a wide range of mistreatment had a higher likelihood of thinking about killing, attacking, or humiliating others. Boys appear to be more prone to violent thinking in general, but the effect of multiple victimizations resulted in very similar reactions by both sexes.
“One way to think about fantasies is as our brain rehearsing future scenarios,” says Professor Manuel Eisner, Director of Cambridge’s Violence Research Centre, in a university release. “The increased violent fantasies among those who experience bullying or mistreatment may be a psychological mechanism to help prepare them for violence to come.”
Every hurtful incident adds up in a disturbing way
Study authors tracked the self-reported thoughts and experiences of around 1,500 young people from schools in Zurich at the ages of 15, 17, and 20. Among 17-year-old boys who had not been bullied in the preceding year, the probability of having violent fantasies over the last month was 56 percent. However, with every additional type of mistreatment, the probability of “violent ideation” increased by up to eight percent. For those listing 10 different types of mistreatment, results show they had a 97 percent chance of having violent fantasies.
Among teenage girls, those not experiencing any bullying only had a 23 percent chance of having a violent fantasy. Unfortunately, those experiencing 10 such events saw their odds grow to 73 percent.
While the consumption of violent media had a slight higher effect on dark fantasies, researchers note adverse life events such as financial troubles or parental separation appear to have no significant impact on a teen’s violent ideation.
“These fantasies of hitting back at others may have roots deep in human history, from a time when societies were much more violent, and retribution – or the threat of it – was an important form of protection,” Eisner explains. “Thoughts of killing others are triggered by experiences of interpersonal harm-doing, attacks on our personal identity, rather than noxious stimuli more generally.”
“It’s the difference between conditions that make people angry and upset, and those that make people vengeful,” the researcher continues. “This study did not examine whether violent ideations caused by victimization actually lead to violent behavior. However, a consistent finding across criminology is that victims often become offenders, and vice versa.”
Does the impact of bullying fade with age?
Overall, rates of the most extreme thoughts decreased by the age of 20. In the oldest participants, only 14 percent of young men and 5.5 percent of women thought about killing someone over the past month. However, researchers add the effects of victimization on violent fantasies did not lessen as these individuals grew up. This suggests the intensity of this psychological trauma may impact adults in the same way.
“Fantasies are unrestrained, and the vengeance taken in our minds is often wildly disproportionate to the real-world event which triggered it,” Eisner concludes. “Studying the mechanisms behind violent fantasies, particularly at a young age, may help with targeted interventions that can stop obsessive rumination turning horribly real.”
The findings appear in the journal Aggressive Behavior.
SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.