Although still relatively new, a good amount of scientific literature already exists on cyberbullying. It provides information on risk factors, trends, victim and perpetrator “profiles,” and possible prevention and management tools. A good definition is a good place to start: cyberbullying refers to the use of new digital technologies with the intended purpose of inflicting harm on others. The most studied cyberbullying “platform” is the Internet, but texting and mobile devices are increasingly popular.
Although cyberbullying would not exist without Internet- related technologies, it is not just that more people are connected to the Internet that is causing it to spread; it is also how they are connected. The dizzying growth of social media and the intimate access they give to all sorts of loosely defined “friends” make them a bully’s heaven and contribute to making cyberbullying a serious public health problem.
The exact prevalence of cyberbullying is unknown, but most studies show victimization rates that vary between 20 and 40 percent. Victims are more likely to be female. Data also suggest that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth are more commonly targeted. Perpetrators, on the other hand, are more likely to be male. Although cyberbullying is usually discussed as a problem of childhood and adolescence, adults, too, suffer from electronic harassment, some forms of which have been dubbed “flaming” (broadcasting offensive messages), “outing” (disseminating embarrassing personal information) and “trolling” (posting content to trigger embarrassing online reactions).
Cyberbullying is frequently associated with psychological distress. Cybervictims tend to have increased rates of depression, anxiety and insomnia, whereas cyberbullies are more likely to have problems with outward aggression, hyperactivity and substance use. A major concern is the increased risk of suicide, considered stronger than in traditional bullying. Bully-victims—individuals who are attacked and transition to become cyberbullies or vice versa—seem to have more accompanying symptoms and more behavioral problems than those who are only victims or only bullies.
No set guidelines exist on how to prevent or manage cyberbullying. Careful evaluation and treatment by a healthcare professional of co-occurring symptoms, especially suicidality, is crucial. Parents need to be educated on the problem, how to discuss it with their children, how to work with schools or the parents of cyberbullies, and when to call the police. Up to date legislation is also important: laws do not protect cyber victims to the same extent as victims of traditional harassment, and must catch up with twenty-first century dangers. Finally, schools are crucial to successfully diagnosing and controlling cyberbullying, and several school-based programs have been implemented and are being tested.
As our love affair with, and dependence on, technology intensifies, it is predicted that cyberbullying will become an even more present concern. Along with the interventions above, research and the dissemination of nonsensationalistic information are crucial if we are to appropriately confront the expected consequences.
Author: Dr. Aboujaoude, psychiatrist and author based at Stanford University