Office of Research

Adolescent sleep problems linked with being bullied

Published January 11, 2019

URBANA, Ill. – When adolescents don’t get enough sleep or experience sleep problems over time, parents may start to see their children struggle with difficulties with emotions, behaviors, and attention. Although a number of factors are linked with sleep, new research is showing that for some kids, negative interactions with peers may be a contributing factor behind poor sleep quality.

A new study from a University of Illinois researcher provides strong evidence that kids who have been victims of bullying from their peers, also known as peer victimization, are more likely to have increasing sleep problems—such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep—over time.

“Peer relationships, especially peer acceptance and peer status, are important to adolescents,” says Kelly Tu, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I. “So being victimized by peers can be a really negative, distressing experience for kids at this age when they just want to fit in.”

In her previous research, Tu has studied the consequences of peer relationship problems, as well as factors that might protect against the negative effects of peer problems, such as parental involvement and friendship quality. Another area of Tu’s research—sleep—has included looking at sleep as a protective or risk factor within the family environment.

Considering what a prominent stressor peer problems are for adolescents, Tu began to question how they could be associated with their sleep. “We often think about feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger associated with peer victimization. But we may not think about sleep as an outcome, although we know that stress, among other factors, affects sleep. In this study we brought these two areas together to specifically examine the link between peer victimization and sleep.”

The current study, conducted by Tu and colleagues from Auburn University, and published in the Journal of Early Adolescence, shows that adolescents who self-reported having been bullied or victimized by peers, had increases in sleep problems approximately one year later.

For the study, 123 fifth and sixth grade students and their parents and teachers participated. Adolescents, parents, and teachers filled out questionnaires asking about adolescents’ experiences with peer victimization. They were asked questions such as, “How often do you get pushed or shoved by other peers at school?” or “How often have other kids said mean things about you to keep other people from liking you?” Adolescents were also asked questions about their sleep quality (e.g., had a good night’s sleep; difficulties falling or staying asleep) at two time points, about a year apart.

In this study, overall peer victimization was examined, but there are different forms of peer victimization, such as overt and relational victimization. “Overt victimization could be physical, such as being shoved against a locker or wall, or verbal, like being called names. Whereas relational victimization refers to being socially excluded or having rumors or gossip spread about a person,” Tu says.

“A lot of the literature has focused on self-reports of peer victimization, which makes a lot of sense. You would know best about your own experiences. But, one of the things we were interested in was whether the same association with sleep would be evident across adolescent, parent, and teacher reports of peer victimization,” Tu explains. “Both inside and outside of the school setting, what do teachers and parents know, respectively, and does that predict adolescent sleep problems?”

But it was the adolescents’ own reports, not parents’ or teachers’ perceptions, about their experiences with peer victimization that predicted their sleep problems over time. After all, the kids themselves may be more aware of the full range of victimization.

“For instance, overt victimization is more obvious and observable, which may be easier for teachers to witness. But there could also be relational victimization occurring, and the teachers may not be aware that it’s happening,” Tu says. “There is also research indicating that parents may not be aware of their children’s peer victimization experiences. Adolescents aren’t always sharing or disclosing these experiences, and so an important question here is, why?” 

Tu and her colleagues also asked the adolescents in the study about their experiences with feelings of depression and anxiety because of their known links with both peer victimization and sleep. “Even after accounting for general anxiety and depressive symptoms, we still had a unique effect of peer victimization predicting increases in sleep problems over time,” Tu says.

“Now that we’ve established that there is this relationship, as a next step we can examine sleep as a potential mechanism to explain how peer victimization may be linked to mental health problems.”

Tu says the findings point to the need for promoting positive peer relationships as one way to improve adolescent sleep quality over time. “We need to think about what we can do in schools or at the community-level to try to create an environment or culture where kids are looking out for one another and helping one another versus putting one another down.” Helping kids who tend to ruminate on negative experiences find ways to relax or take their mind off their worries at night could be another way to promote better sleep, Tu adds.

The research was conducted at Auburn University and supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS 0921271) awarded to Stephen Erath.  

The paper, “Peer victimization predicts sleep problems in early adolescence,” is published in the Journal of Early Adolescence [DOI: 10.1177/0272431617725199] and is available online. Co-authors include Kelly M. Tu, of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Agricultural Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, and Clayton W. Spencer, Mon El-Sheikh, and Stephen A. Erath of Auburn University.  

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Kelly Tu