The Long-Term Effects of Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is defined as bullying using social media such as texting, email, mobile phone calls, social networking sites, sexting, instant messaging, photos, chat rooms, and personal web pages, to intentionally cause harm to another person, who cannot easily defend him, or herself, against these aggressive acts. Cyberbullying causes harassment, social exclusion, humiliation, mockery, unpleasant suggestions, and even suicidal ideation, among a whole host of other outcomes. Cyberbullying can cause very serious, long-lasting effects, such as depression, anxiety, suicidality, and other problems, that follow the victims through middle school, high school, college, and even as trainees in the workforce, but, progress is being made toward providing information about appropriate support and assistance for victims.

Cyberbullying has serious impacts on the mental health of middle school and high school students because of the probability of anonymity, a large audience, usually unlimited access to victims, and less supervision. Some forms of bullying are not considered as damaging, such as insults and threats; but the use of images, perceptions of threat, and even blackmail, cause serious mental and emotional upheaval, as well as negative effects on scholastic performance. Hase and others reported in “Impacts of Cyberbullying on Mental Health” that between 4% and 72% of middle and high school students reported bullying victimization, online or by text, with an average of between 20% and 40%, allowing for discrepancies in study methods and age groups. Ortega relates in “Emotional Impact of Bullying and Cyberbullying,” “Psychosocial problems, such as depression, social anxiety, and low levels of self-esteem, have been found as correlates of cyberbullying victimization.” She points out that 93% of the victims were found to have experienced upset, embarrassment, anger, frustration, vulnerability, fear, sadness, defenselessness, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety. Cybervictimization can also be responsible for affective disorders, and a greater chance of internalizing adjustment problems. Persistence of cyberbullying over time is linked to an increased emotional toll on mental health of adolescents.

Cyberbullying is also a factor among college students, with multiple serious negative results, most commonly resulting in increased chance of depression and substance abuse. College students report a number of cyberbullying behaviors. Young adults who have been victims report greater incidence of depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as emotional distress, hostility, and delinquency. Selkie et al. report, “cybervictimization was associated with fear for one’s safety, poor sleep, somatic symptoms, and emotional and peer problems, while perpetration of cyberbullying was associated with substance use and less prosocial behavior.” Depression and alcohol use are the most common and serious health problems for students. Studies have shown that 30% of college students reported a diagnosis of depression, and 9% contemplated suicide in a 2014 study. Selkie’s research team put the figure for students using alcohol in any given month at 65%, and half of those are binge drinkers (drink five or more beverages at one event in a two-week period). Heavy alcohol use points to increased suicide ideation. These habits formed as young adults, often can, and do, continue as the pressure of careers and family accumulate.

Workplace cyberbullying is an occupational hazard as one goes on beyond college and into the workforce. Episodes of cyberbullying can influence job satisfaction, blame attribution, negative emotions, mental strain, and interactional relations. Bullying occurs with greater frequency in some occupations than others, and higher levels seem to occur in the health occupations. Studies of trainee doctors show that nearly half of the trainees in the subject pool had experienced acts of cyberbullying during their training, and that these episodes contributed substantially to job satisfaction and ill health. One research study shows that when a negative workplace event is perceived by the victim as violating his or her dignity, it causes negative reactions, which influence attitudes and well-being. This disempowerment “can therefore aid our understanding of how cyberbullying might provide negative outcomes through its violation of dignity and norms of respect, which results in a formidable process of disempowerment.” If the victim blames him or herself for being harassed, “they experience reduced well-being. This proposition is based on the notion that internalizing a negative event will result in greater negative affect, which, in turn, causes ill health.” Blaming oneself brings feelings of shame and guilt, which can produce negative outcomes, that is, lower job satisfaction, life satisfaction, and less commitment to the organization.

There are serious forensic implications for adolescent sexting and cyberbullying. This is the time when young people are finding out who they are and establishing a sense of their relationships to others. They are forming core values, and peer relationships are intensifying. It is a time of risky behavior, exploring themselves, and a much greater awareness of their sexuality.  Sexting — the practice of sending sexually explicit language and images via smartphones — has become commonplace among a significant percentage of adolescents. Studies have shown that adolescents average fifty hours a week on their phones. This is a time when their hormones are raging, and immediate and impulsive behavior often occurs. Korenis and Billick report, “Results indicate that overall, teens that engage in sending sexually explicit text messages are more likely to be engaging in sexual behavior and risky sexual practices. While many teens may be sending these messages, the majority of them reported being genuinely bothered by being asked to send a naked picture.” The years between adolescence and adulthood have always been challenging, but modern technological advances have contributed to this difficult navigation process by making it easy for those inclined toward online bullying.

Suicide is a public health problem, and what role the internet plays, particularly social media, is a topic of increasing discussion and debate. It is difficult to determine how much influence the internet plays in suicide ideation because of the difficulty of isolating internet use and other contributing factors. Herba and colleagues believe that thinking about it is more common among girls, and actual suicidal behavior is more common among older children and adolescents. This should be considered a public health problem, and we need to evaluate this influence. Cyberbullying, when linked to suicide, is being called cyberbullicide. Luxton et al. report, “Although cyberbullying cannot be identified as a sole predictor of suicide in adolescents and young adults, it can reduce risk of suicide by amplifying feelings of isolation, instability, and hopelessness, for those with preexisting emotional, psychological, and environmental stressors.” The internet has a number of sites which provide directions on how to commit suicide, and which describe lethal means to kill oneself. Message boards and chat rooms provide how-to information and encouragement to those looking for it. You Tube, Facebook, and other video-sharing sites reinforce the idea that self-harm is normal. Offshore, unregulated pharmacies, are a significant source of obtaining illegal or counterfeit drugs for this purpose, without a prescription. Certainly there is a wide variety of instruction and practical help for adolescents, already at a fragile stage of development, to easily make hasty and sometimes fatal decisions.

Social networking sites aimed at preventing suicide can provide social relationships with peers in similar circumstances, providing crucial information about prevention programs, crisis help phone numbers, and other supportive and educational resources. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline has a very popular Facebook page, as does the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, with over a million total fans. Both groups have links to helpful web sites and hotlines. Each provides information about warning signs of suicide. There are hundreds of suicide prevention groups on Twitter, and hundreds more on Blogger.com. Users can interact, share stories, information, and publicize events in their localities. You Tube has many PSAs (Public Service Announcements) that provide helpful information. The Department of Veterans Affairs produces PSAs that encourage veterans and service members to get help. Nonprofit organizations and universities have announcements, both locally and nationally, that provide helpful information. Individual users have produced videos, such as memorials for friends or families, who have experienced loss by suicide of someone dear to them. An innovative social media platform, produced by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s life-line-gallery.org, features stories by animated avatars (a deity or released soul, in bodily form, on earth), and allows users to interact on screen. Users can create images of their avatars, write, or record by voiceover, their individual stories. Contact information is displayed, as well as links to other helpful sites. “The use of this form of social media provides an anonymous, personalized, and interactive experience geared toward suicide prevention,” Luxton’s team argues. Engaging the user’s mind with these interactive methods is an effective means of transitioning from despair to the help that awaits.

Proactive prevention social media sites are a useful means in the effort to reach troubled young people. Google’s search engine has an algorithm that recognizes signs of despair, and displays a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at the top of the screen, when keyword searches suggest that is a possibility. Facebook has a page that recognizes when a person is looking for pro-suicide information, and which is intended to help remove such sites. Facebook, and other similar sites, work with CEOP (United Kingdom Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center), supplying an easy way to report cyberbullying. Their application is being used to report anyone who posts harassing, threatening, and hateful comments. Its Facebook page shows information surveys and resource links intended to make every visitor to the site aware of the cyberbullying problem. Facebook also works with the United Kingdom and Irish Samaritans charities on a reporting system, which makes it possible to report anyone believed to be considering harming themselves. Information is collected on both the person who is reporting, the date and time, and the person who is being reported. Facebook claims its staff gives priority to these postings, communicating them to the Samaritan team, who then provide guidance and support. The U.S. military also uses social media, through its site, Afterdeployment.org, to provide psychoeducation and support. An impressive amount of help is available online for those who want it.

School administrators should form written policies defining cyberbullying in detail: what is and what is not acceptable, and what the consequences will be for abuse, both at school and away, if they, in any way, affect other students. Classes on these policies should be created and taught to both students and parents, and school counselors should meet with teachers on a regular basis, defining what is appropriate in internet use. Administrators must organize a task force to enforce these programs.  In their seminal article “Cyberbullying: Six Things Administrators Can Do,” Simmons and Bynum suggest that “Administrators should build a relationship with the local police department, perhaps inviting ‘cybercops’ to school to speak to parents and students on proper internet use.” All schools in each district should enforce these same rules, so that as students move through grades or change schools, the rules remain consistent. Obviously, there must be a feeling that it is safe to report incidents of abuse, and all such incidents should be documented.  This program would require a great deal of effort, but over time, students would benefit.

It is clear that cyberbullying does create long-term consequences. Adolescence and young adulthood is a time when very important emotional and physical experiences shape what kind of adults we become. The long-term practical result of these experiences is evident. It is crucial that we pay attention to cyberbullying because awareness and prevention of electronic harassment will have a significant beneficial impact on the rest of the lives of our young people.

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myrnaMyrna Vander Meulen has attended Northwestern University, University of Colorado, and Pikes Peak Community College. She has been a wife, mother, entrepreneur, and Real Estate Broker. She enjoys camping and skiing in her home state of Colorado, as well as domestic and foreign travel.  She also volunteers through her church and lodge.