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Suicidal thoughts plague cyberbullies as well as their targets

Bullying can be all-encompassing for children and teenagers, thanks to technology, and it can have a very negative impact on all involved.

Cyberbullying has been a growing problem for years alongside the increased use of the Internet and social media by children and teenagers, but the COVID-19 pandemic may have given online bullying the biggest boost yet.

Children are spending about 20% more time online than before the pandemic, according to one report, and 71% of parents with children aged 11 and younger are worried about the amount of time their children are spending in front of screens.1

Time isn’t the only problem, though. Roughly 21% of the children between the ages of 10 and 18 years who were polled admitted to having been victims of cyberbullying. More than half of these cases happened between January and July 2020 in correlation with worldwide COVID lockdown orders.1

Name-calling is the most common form of cyberbullying, and although more than half of teenagers felt angry after being bullied; a third reported feeling hur; and 15% said they were scared. In most of these cases, children blocked or tried asking the bully to stop contacting them, but only 11% talked to their parents about the problem.1

Although many schools have instituted programs to try and address all forms of bullying, the reach and impact of these programs is questionable.

One study found that educational interventions had a “very small to small” effect on both traditional and cyber bullying. These interventions were least effective when offered by teachers and appeared to have more effect when they came from tech-savvy content experts.2

Pediatricians need to be aware of the impact that cyberbullying can have on their young patients and help parents identify behaviors that could signal a problem.

Any electronic or online bullying can be considered cyberbullying, with offenses ranging from harmful words to actions. This can include things like sending mean messages to sharing embarrassing photos. Even in the “real world,” cyberbullying can carry through in the form of spreading rumors about someone or leaving them out of activities, said Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, FAAP, in guidance for the American Academy of Pediatrics.3

Cyberbullying isn’t really a new thing, but it does differ from traditional bullying in several ways. For one, cyberbullying can follow children home and be difficult to get away from it. Secondly, the effects can be far more widespread, particularly with “viral” postings that are seen by large populations. The ability to perpetuate this kind of bullying anonymously can also be a draw for would-be bullies.3

Although Moreno noted that bullying is sometimes seen as a childhood rite of passage, the increased reach of cyberbullying is further fueling the risk of depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and even substance abuse in the children and teenagers who are victims.

Girls are most often the victims of cyberbullying, according to one study, whereas boys are more involved in cyberbullying episodes. The study also noted that depression and anxiety are among the most common effects reported with cyberbullying in younger children.4

Young children also may not be able to speak as directly about the problem, often describing cyberbullying with examples whereas older children and adolescents can provide more complex explanations.5

Getting children and teenagers to talk about bullying is only one part of the problem. Clinicians and parents may underestimate the impact cyberbullying has and need to recognize the weight it carries in terms of suicidal thoughts.

Ran Barzilay, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist with the Youth Suicide Prevention, Intervention and Research Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, said research shows that just one question from a pediatrician can be enough to raise a red flag about cyberbullying as a risk factor for suicidality. Being a target of cyberbullying on its own is enough to trigger suicidal thoughts, Barzilay added.

In one study, researchers found that nearly 8% of children and teenagers who reported being victims of cyberbullying also reported feeling suicidal thoughts as a result. However, targets of cyberbullying aren’t the only ones at risk. The report found that 69% of the teens that admitted to perpetuating online bullying had also been victims, and suicidality was at its highest level in this group.6 There is no real consensus on the best interventions for cyberbullying, but experts say helping parents identify the problem and encouraging them to establish a family media use plan are good ways to start.

References

1. Security.org Team. Cyberbullying: twenty crucial statistics for 2022. Updated March 29, 2022. Accessed August 2, 2022. https://www.security.org/resources/cyberbullying-facts-statistics/

2. Ng ED, Chua JYX, Shorey S. The effectiveness of educational interventions on traditional bullying and cyberbullying among adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. 2022;23(1):132-151. doi:10.1177/1524838020933867.

3. Moreno M. Cyberbullying: how to help prevent it. Healthchildren.org Published January 28, 2022. Accessed August 2, 2022.
https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Cyberbullying.aspx

4. Evangelio C, Rodríguez-González P, Fernández-Río J, Gonzalez-Villora S. Cyberbullying in elementary and middle school students: a systematic review. Computers & Education. January 2022;176:104356. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2021.104356.

5. Leduc K, Nagar PM, Caivano O, Talwar Vl. “The thing is, it follows you everywhere”: child and adolescent conceptions of cyberbullying. Computers in Human Behavior. May 2022;130:107180. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2022.107180

6. Arnon S, Brunstein Klomek A, Visoki E, et al. Association of cyberbullying experiences and perpetration with suicidality in early adolescence. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(6):e2218746. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.18746.