July 6, 2010 -- New research sheds important light on the prevalence, extent, and consequences of "cyberbullying" as well as some of the emotional and physical characteristics of cyberbullies and their victims. Both the cyberbullies and those who they bully online are more likely to report a host of physical and mental problems, according to a new study in the July issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
A relatively new phenomenon, cyberbullying is defined as "an aggressive intentional act carried out by a group or individual using electronic forms of contact repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself," according to the study.
The increase in cyberbullying dovetails with the explosion in the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices by children.
Unlike traditional bullying, which largely relies on physical threats, rumors, and exclusion, cyberbullies can reach larger audiences via social media and other technology, making it difficult for the intended victim to escape their bullies. Cyberbullies can also do so relatively anonymously.
The new study included information on 2,215 Finnish teens aged 13 to 16. Overall, 4.8% of the teens said that they were victimized by cyberbullies, 7.4% admitted to being cyberbullies, and 5.4% said they were both cyberbullies and had been cyberbullied.
Most of the cyberbullying was done via computer instant messages and discussion groups, the study showed. Cyberbullies often harassed peers of the same age. Sixteen percent of girls surveyed said they were bullied by boys, whereas just 5% of boys said they were cyberbullied by girls.
Emotional and Physical Issues
Victims of cyberbullying reported emotional, concentration, and behavioral issues, as well as trouble getting along with their peers. These teens were also more likely to report frequent headaches, recurrent stomach pain, and difficulty sleeping; one in four said they felt unsafe at school. What's more, those teens who were victimized by cyberbullies were less likely to be living with both biological parents, the researchers report.
Cyberbullies also reported emotional difficulties, concentration, and behavior issues and difficulty getting along with others. They were also more likely to be hyperactive, have conduct problems, abuse alcohol, and smoke cigarettes.
In addition, cyberbullies also reported frequent headaches and feeling unsafe at school. Those teens who were both cyberbullies and victims reported all of these physical and mental health issues, the study found.
"Policy makers, educators, parents, and adolescents themselves should be aware of the potentially harmful effects of cyber bullying," conclude the researchers, who were led by Andre Sourander, MD, PhD, a child psychiatrist at Turku University in Finland. "Future research is needed on whether anti-bullying policies materials, interventions and mobile telephone and Internet user guidelines are effective for reducing cyberbullying."
Staying Safe Online
Parry Aftab's life mission is to keep children and teens safe online. An Internet privacy and security lawyer in Fort Lee, N.J., Aftab is the executive director of wiredsafety.org, an online safety and educational site which is the parent group for a charity called stopcyberbullying.org.
"Cyberbullying is when a minor uses technology as a weapon to hurt another," she says. It can take many forms such as stealing another kid's password or his or her points in an online game or digitally adding a peer's face to a photo of a naked body and then posting it online (where it can quickly go viral), she says. "There are millions of different ways to [cyberbully]; it is limited only by the bandwidth and creativity of kids."
Cyberbullying changes the typical playground or schoolyard social structure. "It brings a whole different group of kids into the problem," she says. "Real-life victims can become online bullies because it is rarely a matter of size," she explains. "It gets the girls and geeks involved and they are normally the ones being bullied."
There is no escape from cyberbullies, she says. If a child was bullied at school, home was often a safe haven. But "teens are always connected, and technology follows you everywhere you are, 24-7," she says. "Cyberbullying can have devastating consequences and parents need to understand that most kids have been cyberbullied at least once."
The question becomes what to do about it. Aftab's advice to teens who are victims of cyberbullies? "Stop, block, and tell," she says.
"Do not reply. Block the message and then tell a trusted adult," she says. Other tips include using non-obvious passwords and changing them after breakups to discourage hackers, she suggests.
Parents of children who are bullied online need to take a deep breath before they overreact and make things worse, she says. "If there is a teacher or guidance counselor with whom you have a good relationship, call that person first so your child won't be blamed as a tattletale," she advise. But "If there is a threat, you have to call the police."
Aftab's group is planning to release a free stop cyberbullying toolkit for schools in August.
Child psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman, MD, the executive director of the Bernard L. Pacella Parent Child Center in New York City, agrees with Aftab. "This paper stresses the importance of a no-tolerance policy that the adults have to enforce vigorously."
"This paper verifies that cyberbullying is a significant problem," Aftab tells WebMD. "More importantly, it promotes the idea that school and mental health personnel need to be aware of its existence."
More research is needed to get a better handle on some of the physical and mental characteristics of cyberbullies and their victims, he says. "Whether cyberbullying [victim or perpetrator or both] is the cause of a variety of problems or whether kids with a variety of psychosocial and medical problems are prone to bullying, victimization or both is a question that has to be studied."