An investigation into cognitive mechanisms as a developmental pathway for children’s involvement in bullying and adjustment problems

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis investigates cognitive mechanisms underlying youths’ vulnerability for involvement in bullying and developing adjustment problems. The aim of this thesis was threefold: (1) investigate whether early cognitive functioning acts as a developmental marker for children’s later involvement in bullying; (2) investigate the cognitive processing of bullied children and whether these skills were associated with adjustment problems; (3) investigate whether early cognitive functioning acts as a differential marker for bullies and non-bullies who have other antisocial behaviour problems. Participants were members of the Environmental-Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, a nationally representative sample of 2,232 children and their families, and the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a longitudinal birth cohort of 1037 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand. Using multiple informant reports, measures of bullying, antisocial behaviours, cognitive functioning, child-specific and family factors were collected during childhood, adolescents and adulthood.
Poor theory of mind (ToM) in early childhood predicted becoming a victim or bully-victim in adolescence over and above child-specific and family factors. For bullies, the risk of having poor ToM was overridden by socioeconomic deprivation and child maltreatment. Bullied children reported biased interpretation of their environments when compared to their non-bullied co-twin. Children who used biased attribution styles when interpreting the cause of negative events had higher levels of adjustment problems. Bullies did not differ in their early cognitive processing, temperament and family environment from children with high antisocial behaviours, but did from children with moderate antisocial behaviours. Being a bully or having antisocial behaviours predicted adjustment problems in adolescence and adulthood. Being a bully had an independent effect on substance use in adolescence and emotional problems in adulthood over and above the risk posed by having antisocial behaviours.
Findings from this thesis identify cognitive functioning as an early developmental marker for children’s involvement in bullying and a mechanism that may be negatively affected by children’s bullying experiences. Supporting positive cognitive development throughout childhood may help to reduce children’s risk of being involved in bullying and maintain healthy cognitive processing techniques that promote mental wellbeing.
Date of Award2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorLouise Arseneault (Supervisor) & Sara Jaffee (Supervisor)

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