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Keywords:

  • Peer victimization;
  • bullying;
  • depression;
  • genetic polymorphisms;
  • 5-HTTLPR

Background:  Relational peer victimization is associated with internalizing symptoms. Compared to boys, girls are more likely to be both relationally victimized by peers and distressed by the victimization. While previous studies have reported that a functional polymorphism in the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR) moderates the effect of stressful life events on depressive symptoms, the present study is the first to evaluate the interaction of this polymorphism with relational peer victimization to predict level of depressive symptoms in young girls.

Methods:  Participants were 78 girls ages 10 to 14 who had no current or past Axis I disorder. Girls were genotyped for 5-HTTLPR; peer victimization was assessed with the Social Experiences Questionnaire, and depressive symptoms with the Children’s Depression Inventory.

Results:  The 5-HTTLPR polymorphism alone did not predict level of depressive symptoms; the interaction of 5-HTTLPR and relational peer victimization, however, was a significant predictor of depressive symptoms. Follow-up analyses indicated that peer victimization significantly predicted level of depressive symptoms only for girls who were homozygous for the short allele, and not for girls homozygous for the long allele or who were heterozygous for the short and long alleles.

Conclusions:  The findings support the diathesis-stress model of depression: having two 5-HTTLPR short alleles confers vulnerability to depressive symptoms in adolescent girls when they experience relational peer victimization. These findings also suggest that relational peer victimization, at least for girls with genetic vulnerability, is a significant source of stress and should be recognized in the monitoring and prevention of bullying.