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It was reported that in 2017, 1 in 6 Malaysian adolescents experience bullying victimization (National Health and Morbidity Survey, 2017). Bullying was defined as being on the receiving end of “bad and unpleasant” actions, such as “teasing a lot in an unpleasant way”, or being “left out of things on purpose”. This raises an alarm on the current conditions of our adolescents. Another statistic revealed that the prevalence of mental health problem in Malaysian adults was reported to reach 29% in 2020 (Guan, 2014) and the number is higher among younger adults (National Health and Morbidity Survey, 2015). Considering these two worrying statistics, it’s a wonder of how they may be related, that is what would be the likelihood of the victimized adolescent to have mental health problems when they grow up to become adults.
There are different forms of peer victimization (a term used to refer to being bullied by peers) such as overt victimization and relational victimization. Overt victimization is defined as bullying that is verbal or physical in nature such as harsh words and hitting others (Casper & Card, 2016). Relational victimization refers to a situation where individuals are treated in relationally aggressive ways such as being ditched, being the target of gossip and rumours as well as threatened by their peers or significant others.
The forms of peer victimization are usually studied together and are linked to psychosocial maladjustments (Kawabata, Tseng & Crick, 2014). It has also been revealed that this effect may depend on the type of victimization and that relational victimization but not overt victimization could be a predictor of depressive symptoms (Bauman, 2008; Cooley, Fitey, Rubens & Tunno, 2014). It is found that there was a significant correlation between relational victimization and depression among African American females aged 18 years and above with 2 of the participants reported to have possible suicidal ideation. According to Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale and Downey (2014), relational victimization has significant direct effect and indirect effect (when mediated by rejection sensitivity) to depressive symptoms whereas overt victimization does not. As indicated by Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale and Downey (2014), people who are relationally victimized may happen to experience more of being the victim of gossips, excluded from the social circle and other relational victimization behaviors thus explaining the significant association between relational victimization and depressive symptoms. A study by Dempsey and Storch (2008) found that young adults who recalled being relationally victimized during adolescence are more likely to report higher depressive symptoms. Thus, it can be said that the after-effect of relational victimization in adolescents not only remain in the adolescence period and seemed to have prolonged or made the victims be more vulnerable to depression as they reach adulthood stage.
Some studies have demonstrated the buffering effect of genetic vulnerability (Benjet, Thompson & Gotlib, 2010) and emotional support from father (Desjardins & Leadbeater, 2011) on the effect of peer victimization during the period of adolescence or childhood. This suggests that the depression due to earlier peer victimization can be moderated. However, not much research has been done to explore the moderating factors related to the self, such as self-concept. Self-concept can be referred to how individuals perceive about themselves and can be seen as a global aspect or divided into domains of self-concept (Strein, 1995). Whether it is defined as a global aspect of the self or divided into domains, positive self-concept has been linked to positive adjustment to life events. For example, positive self-concept has been linked to job performance (Judge, Erez & Bono, 1998) and specifically, academic self-concept was found to be associated with academic achievement (Marsh, Trautwein, Lüdtke, Köller & Baumert, 2005). In contrast, negative self-concept leads to higher depressive symptoms (Tarlow & Haaga, 1996).
Peer victimization together with self-concept has been studied in relation to one’s mental health. In a study by Grills and Ollendick (2002), peer victimization is correlated with anxiety among sixth-grade students with self-worth being the moderating factor among males and self-worth being the mediating factor among females. Other than that, specifically, relational victimization was significantly correlated with negative self-evaluation and negative self-evaluation was significantly associated with depression in a three waves data of a longitudinal study among urban African American adolescents (Taylor, Sullivan & Kliewer, 2013). This suggests that self-concept can be a predictor of depression among adolescents. However, influence of self-concept in young adults may be different as self-concept is said to be stabilized in early adulthood period due to the assumed roles carried during that phase (Demo, 1992). Therefore, self-concept may be more influential in adulthood to guard against psychological distress such as depressive symptoms. Thus, the present review aims to investigate the relationship between relational victimization during adolescence, depressive symptoms and the role of self-concept during young adulthood period.
Google Scholar was chosen as search engine and articles were screened out from five databases such as Cambridge Core, Wiley Online Library, Elsevier, American Psychological Association and Springer. The main keywords entered in the databases were relational victimization, depressive symptoms, self-concept, young adults, young adulthood, adolescents and adolescence. The keywords were chosen and entered based on the relationship between relational victimization during adolescence and self-concept in young adulthood, relational victimization during adolescence and depressive symptoms in young adults and self-concept and depressive symptoms in young adults.
There were inclusion and exclusion criteria as standards to screen out the journal articles and these criteria were chosen and kept on changing as more steps taken during the screening process. The final inclusion criteria were as follow:
Articles were excluded if:
Articles were screened based on the relationship of variables intended to be investigated at that moment. For example, if the relationship between relational victimization and depressive symptoms was examined, variable of self-concept did not necessarily had to be in the article chosen for the review. In terms of self-concept, articles were chosen not only if it is referred to self-concept as a variable but, self-esteem or other aspects that portray certain aspects of self-concept were also taken to be analyzed in this current review.
Although all of the articles chosen provided quantitative findings, meta-analysis was not used as a method in conducting this literature review. The reason was because the studies have different measurement tools used to measure the variables chosen in this review. Thus, a qualitative synthesis was used in this literature review.
Out of 84,306 records identified from the databases, only six articles were chosen in the final screening. The reason for the limited number of articles in the final screening is because the articles chosen have specific criteria on the type of victimization, type of mental health issue as well as the target population that this review aims to explore.
Relational victimization and depressive symptoms
Leadbeater, Thompson and Sukhawathanakul (2014) conducted an 8-year longitudinal study on the frequency of peer victimization and the level of depressive and anxiety symptoms from adolescence throughout young adulthood period. With two years gap on five phases, 459 participants aged 12 to 18 years old (when first identified) joined the study. Their age ranged between 20 to 27 years old during the final phase of the study. The participants answered items of physical victimization and relational victimization in Social Experiences Questionnaire and depressive and anxiety symptoms in Brief Child and Family Phone Interview across the five phases. In terms of the association between relational victimization and depressive symptoms, the analysis of the result showed that relational victimization is positively correlated with depressive symptoms concurrently in each phase for both genders. Prospectively, relational victimization in the first phase is positively correlated with depressive symptoms in the second, third and fourth phase for both genders. Thus, from the study, it can be said that the effects of relational victimization on depressive symptoms not only remained during adolescence period of the victims but, it can last until they reach the young adulthood period.
Hager and Leadbeater (2015) investigated a 10-year longitudinal study on the influence of relational and physical victimization on physical health and physical self-concept throughout adolescence to young adulthood period. There were 662 participants recruited and the sample ranged between 12 to 29 years old in the 10-year time span. The participants were interviewed in six phases on Social Experiences Questionnaire (for peer victimization), Health Behavior in School-aged Children Scale (for physical symptoms), Body Areas Satisfaction Scale , Self-image Questionnaire for Young Adolescents and an item to rate the perception on physical health in general (for physical self-concept). The analysis of the data found that the concurrent relationship between relational victimization and physical self-concept was negatively correlated for the first and second phases. There were also negative correlations between youth experiencing relational victimization at first phase and physical self-concept at second to fourth phase and between relational victimization at third phase and physical self-concept at fourth and sixth phase. Therefore, it can be interpreted that victims of relational victimization during adolescence may experience poorer self-concept as they reach young adulthood period.
In addition, a study by Kopala-Sibley, Zuroff, Leybman and Hope (2013) was conducted to explore the relationship between recalled peer experiences during adolescence (overt and relational victimization and prosocial behaviors received by others) and self-criticism during young adulthood, an aspect related to self-concept. 200 young adult participants ranged between 18 to 25 years old completed questionnaires on Self-criticism Scale (measure for self-criticism), Social Experiences Questionnaire (measure for peer victimization and received prosocial behaviors) and Parental Bonding Inventory (measure for parental care during adolescence). The analysis of the result suggested that there was a significant positive correlation between the recalled experiences of relational victimization with the level of inadequacy self-criticism during young adulthood period. Thus, it can be said that, experience of relational victimization during adolescence may affect young adults to perceive themselves as inadequate or inferior to others.
A 4-year longitudinal study was conducted to study the relationship between racial discrimination and depressive symptom with racial self-concept as a mediator in a sample of 222 people transitioning to young adulthood period (Kogan, Yu, Allen & Brody, 2014). The participants were 16 years old when they first joined the study and 20 years old at the end of the data collection. Respondents completed measure on Hostility scale, a checklist on delinquent behaviour and a checklist on 15 antisocial behaviours of their peers on the first phase (16 years old). Respondents also completed an adapted scale on racially microstressor from a research (Williams and Williams-Morris 2000) to measure racial discrimination on the first to third phase (18 years old), items adapted based on feedback from focus group and Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity on first and fourth phase (19 years old) to measure racial self-concept, items developed by Humprey (1982) (as cited in Kogan, Yu, Allen & Brody, 2014) on the first to third phase to measure self-control and Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression Scale on first to fifth phase (20 years old) to measure depressive symptoms. The analysis of the result showed that high level of racial discrimination at the age of 16 to 18 significantly led to low level of racial self-concept, thus led to high level of depressive symptoms at the age of 20. Hence, it can be said that self-concept, when influenced by negative experiences during adolescence may in turn affect one’s depressive symptoms in young adults.
Furthermore, Rieger, Göllner, Trautwein and Roberts (2016) conducted a replication longitudinal study to investigate three theoretical models of self-esteem, an aspect of self-concept with depression on 2512 young adults aged between 21 to 25 years old. The theoretical models that were tested are vulnerability (low self-esteem affect depression), scar (depression affect low self-esteem) and common-factor (low self-esteem and depression shared common aspects and should be regarded as the same factor). The participants completed Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale and Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale for three waves of data collection with two years gap on each wave. The analysis of the result showed that there was a statistically significant correlation in the longitudinal relationship between self-esteem and future depression on first to second wave and second to third wave but not statistically significant for the path on depression to self-esteem. Thus, it can be interpreted that since self-esteem is an aspect of self-concept, low self-concept may also be a risk factor to depressive symptoms in young adults.
Last but not least, Wouters, Duriez, Luyckx, Klimstra, Colpin, Soenens and Verschueren (2013) conducted a longitudinal study on the relationship between contingent self-esteem, level of self-esteem and depressive symptoms among university students. 530 participants were recruited to participate in this three-wave study with three months interval between each wave. They completed Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale, Contingent Self-esteem Scale and Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale within each wave. The analysis of the result showed that concurrently, level of self-esteem is negatively correlated with depressive symptoms and contingent self-esteem is positively correlated with depressive symptoms at each wave of the study. Therefore, it can be said that forms of self-esteem in which shaping one’s self-concept throughout young adulthood period can be a protective or a risk factor to depressive symptoms.
This review identifies the recent studies on the association between relational victimization during adolescence and depressive symptoms as well as self-concept during young adulthood period. Generally, there is one study found on the relationship between relational victimization and depressive symptoms, two studies on relational victimization and self-concept and three studies on self-concept and depressive symptoms.
This review suggests that experiences of relational victimization during adolescence are one of the risk factors that determine depressive symptoms in young adults (Leadbeater, Thompson & Sukhawathanakul, 2014). The literature is consistent with the finding by Dempsey and Storch (2008) who found that recalled experience of being relationally victimized during adolescence is significantly related to current depressive symptoms in young adults. Other findings have shown similar association in children and adolescent populations (Kawabata, Crick & Hamaguchi, 2013; Mathieson, Klimes-Dougan & Crick, 2014). In fact, a study by Becker, Mehari, Langberg and Evans (2016) support the association between relational victimization and depressive symptoms in male young adolescent participants with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
It can also be seen from the review, on the association between relational victimization and aspects of self-concept (Kopala-Sibley, Zuroff, Leybman and Hope, 2013; Hager & Leadbeater, 2015). From the review, it can be interpreted that one’s negative experience during adolescence may influence one’s self-concept in their young adulthood period. It is undeniable that the finding associated with self-concept does not represent relational victimization alone but also other negative treatment that children or adolescents received. For instance, being rejected by peers may affect child’s academic self-competence, one of the forms of self-concept (Buhs, 2005).
The review also suggests the association between self-concept and depressive symptoms (Wouters, Duriez, Luyckx, Klimstra, Colpin, Soenens & Verschueren, 2013; Kogan, Yu, Allen & Brody, 2014; Rieger, Göllner, Trautwein & Roberts, 2016). Although self-concept is a broad term and usually, researchers studied only a certain forms or aspects of self-concept, the consistency of findings between self-concept and its aspects on mental health issues can be seen across studies. A meta-analysis showed reciprocal effects on self-esteem and anxiety across different age-groups (Sowislo & Orth, 2013).
In conclusion, this review is able to shed light about the relationship between relational victimization during adolescence, self-concept and depressive symptoms in early adulthood period. This review is important as it explores contributory factors to depressive symptoms in young adults as young adults with mental health problems contributed the most numbers in the prevalence of mental health issue among adult population in Malaysia (National Health and Morbidity Survey, 2015). Therefore, this review may be benefited by the Malaysian authority on improving the steps taken to reduce the number of future young adults to be affected by depressive symptoms.
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