Where There's Smoke

Bullying Linked to Adolescent Cigarette Use

Published September 1, 2019

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Many of us are familiar with this old adage, ourselves often chanting it as children on the playground, the school bus, the cafeteria.

It’s a funny contradiction, that words don’t have the power to hurt us, yet these words somehow have the power to shield us from the emotional pain caused by words.

Adults offered us this advice during that delicate time of childhood development when bullying can have a profound effect – though well intentioned, our understanding of the types of bullying, and the effects of bullying, has expanded in recent years.

Bullying goes beyond physical harm, the “sticks and stones.” Whether social, verbal or physical, bullying can also cause emotional harm. This emotional harm, in turn, can cause physical and other types of harm by way of coping mechanisms.

Jennifer Livingston, PhD, associate professor at UB School of Nursing, studies the relationship between peer victimization and adolescent substance use. She noticed that some teens who are bullied by their peers are more likely to use alcohol or other substances, while others are not. There is a lack of research to identify the conditions that lead to substance abuse and for whom – it was also unclear as to whether substance use occurs close in time to the victimization experience or develops over time.

As the primary investigator for “Peer Victimization as a Pathway to Adolescent Substance Use,” a $1.8 million study funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Livingston’s team examined the daily-level associations among bullying, negative affect and substance use among adolescents.

Girls whispering about another girl.

For 56 consecutive days, participants completed an online survey to report their experiences with bully victimization, bully perpetration, mood, and substance use, specifically alcohol and cigarette use.

“We found that on days when adolescents were victimized, they reported greater sadness and anger and were more likely to smoke cigarettes than they were on days when no victimization occurred,” says Livingston. “There was no association with alcohol use, but this may be due in part to the young age of the sample (13-16 years). This suggests that adolescents may be turning to cigarettes to cope with the negative emotions brought on by victimization.”

Bullying perpetration was not found to be linked to same-day mood or substance use.

Livingston’s is one of the few studies that shows the immediate effects of peer victimization on mood and substance abuse; it also supports the self-medication hypothesis, an addiction theory that posits people often use substances – or addictive behaviors such as gambling – to relieve or manage negative emotions.

While not all bullying victims suffer serious effects of being victimized, the pervasiveness of bullying coupled with its potential to cause significant or lasting harm demands that we increase our understanding of the factors and conditions that contribute to those immediate and long term effects.

“Our next step is to examine whether we can identify which kids are most likely to turn to substances following a victimization experience, and to examine the long-term effects of bully victimization on substance use in addition to daily-level findings of this paper,” says Livingston.

Co-Investigators on the grant include Jay Derrick, University of Houston; Weijun Wang and Maria Testa, Department of Psychology at UB; Amanda Nickerson, director of the UB Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse and Prevention; Dorothy Espelage, University of Florida; and Kathleen Miller, D’Youville College.