Cyberbullying refers to harassing or slandering someone through online modes of communication. This can include posting humiliating pictures, spreading negative rumors, threatening or intimidating someone, or posting critical or mean comments.1 Cyberbullying usually takes place on websites, blogs, or social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or Facebook. It can happen directly or anonymously, and, for these reasons, it can be hard to track the origin of when or with whom cyberbullying begins.
As many as 42% of adolescents report being cyberbullied within the past year and 87% of them say they’ve witnessed it.2,3 With suicide the third-leading cause of teenage deaths and 10% adolescents attempting suicide because of cyberbullying, it is more important than ever to know more about this devastating behavior and learn how to intervene in time.2,3
This article explores this issue, including:
- How cyberbullying affects mental health.
- Why it can lead to drug abuse.
- How to help.
How Cyberbullying Affects Mental Health
Research highlights the correlation between cyberbullying and adolescent mental health; one study showed that 93% of victims who experienced cyberbullying reported feeling hopeless, sad, and powerless over the situation.1 Because of this, cyberbullying places adolescents at higher risk for developing 1 or more of the following mental health issues:1
- Low self-esteem
- Eating disorders
Cyberbullying—especially when it’s focused on a person’s outward appearance—can be significantly detrimental. In fact, 72% of adolescents report that they are cyberbullied because of their looks, and as many as 65% of people struggling with eating disorders indicate that bullying contributed to their condition.2,4
Why It Can Lead to Drug Abuse
In addition to the correlation with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and poor self-esteem, cyberbullying can drastically impact a young person’s life, in ways such as:
- Making them afraid to go to school.
- Making it more difficult for them to socialize with peers.
- Introducing feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness about their situation.
- Making them feel unable to speak to an adult about the bullying.
- Potentially influencing an adolescent or teen down a path of alcohol or drug abuse.
Although it is challenging to find exact statistics on drug abuse related to cyberbullying since it is a relatively new problem, we do know that substance use is strongly associated with trauma and co-occurring mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. And research does suggest that adolescents who have been bullied are twice as likely to use alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes as teens who have not been bullied.1,5
Interestingly, those who are on the receiving end of bullying are not the only ones negatively affected by the act. Teens who bully their peers are also more likely to use alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes compared to students who do not bully others.6
How to Help
Although bullying has been a problem among children for generations, the evolution of cyberbullying appears to be significantly more malicious and damaging than old-school, face-to-face harassment. This could be due to the fact that cyberbullying is not necessarily time-limited or location-dependent, and it can be totally anonymous and easily distributed to a large audience. So, kids who may not bully a person to their face feel more emboldened to do so behind the anonymity of the internet.7
As the world becomes increasingly more interconnected through technology, it is important for parents to be aware of the impact it is having on their kids. It is also essential to establish open, non-judgmental communication with their children so they can have conversations about these difficult topics, including:1,7
- Monitoring the online behavior of your child and creating rules for which websites and social media platforms aren’t appropriate for them.
- Setting boundaries for what behavior is and is not allowed.
- Making it clear to your teen that they can come to you with their fears or concerns about their online experiences.
Parents should not wait until their children become teenagers to have this conversation either. Prevention and intervention can begin in grade school, since cyberbullying may happen to children as young as 9.1 In general, any child with access to smartphones or the Internet must be aware of the risks associated with going online and socializing with peers. Fortunately, many websites have parental control options that can be used if they have concerns about their child’s behavior.7
Additionally, many schools implement no-bullying policies and awareness programs as a means of preventing or managing cyberbullying. By staying connected with your child’s school and with other parents, you have a better chance of learning about any secret blogs or pages floating around that children are using to target others.
If you find out that your child is being bullied, it’s important to remain supportive and calm. Ask open-ended questions and validate your child’s fears, feelings, and concerns. After all, cyberbullying is often associated with tremendous amounts of shame and fear; as a result, it can be difficult for children to confide in their parents with their struggles.
Parents can also teach their children positive coping skills, such as talking to a trusted adult or engaging in positive peer support. Other coping skills that can help manage difficult situations include:
- Creative expression (journaling, art).
- Exercise or physical activity.
- Spiritual connection (belonging to a faith-based community).
- Becoming active in community service.
Because adolescents may experience mental health and substance abuse issues in association with cyberbullying, parents should be on the lookout for these concerns:8
- Increased anxiety or worry.
- Frequent tantrums or irritation.
- Increased complaints of somatic pains (stomachaches, headaches).
- Declining interest in enjoyable activities.
- Declining energy.
- Evidence of or concern about self-harm (cuts, burns).
- Risky, self-destructive behavior.
- Avoiding spending time with friends.
- Declining grades or lack of interest in extracurricular activities.
It is important for parents to advocate for their child’s wellbeing. Parents who are concerned that their teen is suffering from depression, anxiety, or a substance use disorder can talk with school counselors or health care providers and ask that they provide the necessary evaluations.8 After the initial assessment, appropriate recommendations and referrals for care can be made. Individual and family therapy can help adolescents discuss their feelings in a safe place and explore healthy and productive ways to cope with distressing situations, as can individualized substance abuse treatment tailored to the teen’s unique needs.9