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Hiding Behind the Screen: The Increasing Psychological Distress of Cyberbullying in Children and Adolescents

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The expansion and increasing use of technology in the last decade has seen a shift from face-to-face communication to online communication via social media platforms, text messages, e-mails, and instant messenger. As a result, users are continually balancing between the dangers and opportunities, with cyberbullying being understood as a key risk of online communication, particularly in late adolescents. Cyberbullying is known as an aggressive, intentional act carried out via electronic forms of communication. New research illustrates that the increasing use of technology amongst children and early adolescents has reported more cyberbullying and cyber victimisation.

Psychological distress of cyberbullying – Victims vs perpetrators 

In a recent study conducted at the University College London, Kwan and colleagues conducted a systematic map of 19 systematic reviews where they reported a strong negative correlation between cyberbullying and mental health outcomes in young people. Over 74% of the systematic reviews were published after 2014, illustrating the on-going, continuing negative relationship between cyberbullying and mental health outcomes of children and young people. 

A recent 2020 study of over 1,000 participants aged 9–17 years in France, provided evidence that cyber victimisation is associated with negative consequences of high levels of anxiety, low social competence, and enhanced impulsive and aggressive behaviours. Similar results have been established in the US, the UK, and Australia. A systematic review of cyberbullying and adolescent mental health illustrates the mental health problems associated with both cyber victims and cyber offenders. Cyber victimisation has been found to predict the development of depression, anxiety, emotional stress, and social anxiety.

The review also established that the following factors were associated among perpetrators of cyberbullying:

  • Suicidal ideation
  • Low levels of prosocial behaviour
  • Increased and frequent substance use
  • Violent and risky behaviours

The clear evidence shows that cyberbullying can have a considerable detrimental effect on children and adolescents’ well-being where, in the worst-case scenarios, it can lead to suicidal behaviours. A 2010 study of suicide research illustrated that victims of cyberbullying were almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide than those not involved in cyberbullying. Similarly, perpetrators of cyberbullying were 1.5 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those with no history of involvement in cyberbullying. A more recent study published in 2018, conducted by students of Swansea University, found equivalent findings where victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt suicide. This study was pursued as a systematic review of studies published from 2009–2017. The consistency in research findings over the past decade emphasises the importance of prevention strategies for cyberbullying.  

Prevention of cyberbullying to reduce psychological distress 

The increasing use of technology acts as a double-edged sword for children and young people, due to the risks of cyberbullying outweighing the opportunities for socialisation. Therefore, urgent prevention and intervention strategies of cyberbullying are required to tackle the evident detrimental effects. 

The safeguarding of children and young people rests on the support and implementation from parents/family members, clinicians and practitioners, teachers, and policymakers. 

  • Open discussions between parents and children about appropriate online behaviour are said to be meaningful towards safeguarding youths from engaging in cyberbullying acts.
  • Anti-bullying policies within schools that outline the meaning of cyberbullying and its detrimental effects for both perpetrators and victims are recommended to prevent increasing rates of cyberbullying.
  • Pinpointing experiences of cyberbullying, such as avoiding school, sleep troubles, social detachment, reporting health problems (headaches and stomach aches are common in cyber victims), and low self-esteem, are significant in the early detection of cyberbullying and therefore allow for early prevention of psychological distress. 

Theodore Roosevelt famously said: ‘Knowing what is right doesn’t mean much unless you do what is right.’ Thus, simply acknowledging that cyberbullying exists as a problem is simply not adequate anymore. Understanding its negative detrimental effects on children and young people is crucial to enhance positive mental health and well-being. 

Carly Sandhu is studying for a master’s degree at the University of Strathclyde. She has a strong passion for research about child and adolescent mental health.

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