02/08/2012 04:39 EST | Updated 11/12/2012 01:52 EST

Depressed Children Targeted By Bullies

teenage boy is photographed in...

Children who cry easily and show other signs of depression are more likely to be bullied, but researchers suggest the depression may not necessarily be caused by bullying.

People often assume that being bullied leads to psychological problems such as depression, but a new study suggests otherwise.

Karen Kochel, a professor in social and family dynamics at Arizona State University School of Social and Dynamics, and her co-authors analyzed data from 486 children in fourth to sixth grade.

Since the study began in 1992, parents, teachers, peers and the students themselves were surveyed each year about signs of depression and bullying.

Students depressed in fourth grade were linked to problems with bullying in fifth grade and difficulty with peer acceptance in sixth grade, the researchers said in Wednesday’s online issue of the journal Child Development.

The finding supports the thinking that depressive symptoms influence peer acceptance, they said. For example, it could be that depressed youth may talk about their problems too much, which is a turn-off for their peers.

Depression's scar

In contrast, the researchers found little evidence that being bullied increased a child's risk for later depression.

"Depressive symptoms leave a lasting scar" that undermine normal development such as establishing healthy peer relationships, the study's authors concluded.

The findings have important implications for prevention and early intervention of depression symptoms in youth, since social adjustment in adolescence seems to be important for social functioning in adulthood, Kochel said.

Parents and teachers need to be aware of the signs of depression in children and help them, the researchers stressed.

In the study, parents and teachers reported if the children cried a lot, lacked energy and showed other signs of depression.

Bullying included hitting someone, saying mean things, talking behind someone's back or picking on someone.

The study doesn't exclude the possibility that peers can make a depressed child even more depressed.

The investigators only used reports from parents and teachers to assess depressive symptoms. They suggested that self-reports could complement the information, since depressive symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness are difficult to assess from adult bystanders.

The study was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.