A recent study by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that adolescents who are victims of cyberbullying at school have a higher risk of depression than their aggressors.
Unlike traditional forms of bullying such as physical confrontations, physical violence, verbal harassment, and social isolation, cyberbullying involves the exchange of aggressive behavior from one or more perpetrators and the victim through electronic forms of communication such as cell phones and the Internet. According to the new study, conducted by Dr. Jing Wang and colleagues from the Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, victims of cyberbullying experience higher rates of depression than both cyber-bullies and bully-victims (students who admit to engaging in the victimization of others as well as being victimized themselves). The latest findings are in contrast to previous studies on traditional bullying in which bully-victims were found to experience the greatest risk of depression compared to the other groups.
Among the up-and-coming technological generation, cyberbullying has now become a part of traditional bullying, allowing aggressors to harass their victims in more personal, invasive manners like private cell phones, emails, and home computers, and in more public contexts like chat rooms and social networking sites at any time. In addition, cyber-victims may experience more feelings of depression than other groups since their aggressors can remain anonymous, leaving the victim to feel greater fear, intimidation, exclusion, and helplessness compared to other forms of victimization. Although the researchers found cyber-bullies to have lower incidences of depression than cyber-victims, bullies still had a higher risk of depression than students who remained uninvolved in aggressive behavior.
In their study, researchers analyzed the responses from a 2005/2006 behavioral health questionnaire conducted on students from 43 countries. Students were asked to report their feelings of depression within the past 30 days, including feelings of sadness, irritability, moodiness, hopelessness, lack or increase of appetite, sleep problems, and loss of concentration on a five-item scale. Students were also questioned regarding their involvement in bullying behavior or victimization, such as physical violence, verbal harassment, social isolation, and cyberbullying. The researchers categorized students as not involved, victims, bullies, or bully-victims, and rated their involvement as never, frequent, or occasional.
As a result, students who were victims, bullies, or both reported higher rates of depression than their noninvolved counterparts. Also, students who reported more frequent encounters of all forms of bullying and victimization experienced higher levels of depression than those who reported only experiencing bullying occasionally. Students who engaged in physical aggression all tended to score similar rates of depression to each other. Those who were victims or bully-victims of verbal or social harassment reported somewhat higher rates of depression than their bullies. However, students who reported experiencing frequent victimization from cyberbullying showed significantly higher rates of depression than frequent bullies and somewhat greater levels than frequent bully-victims.
In a study published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the same researchers discovered that 13.6% of adolescents in grades 6–10 have experienced cyberbullying at least once in the past two months. Similarly, a study conducted by Dr. Andre Sourander and his team from Finland’s Turku University, published in July in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that 4.8% of Finnish students ages 13–16 were victims of cyberbullying, 7.4% were perpetrators of cyberbullying, and 5.4% were both bullies and victims of cyberbullying within the past six months. The most common forms of cyberbullying reported by the students occurred via text messaging and online discussion groups, and victims and bullies were most likely to be of the same age and gender.
Due to the strong association between bullying behavior and depression, the researchers recommend that mental health counseling be made readily available to adolescents. The NIH researchers advise parents to encourage their children to openly discuss cyberbullying incidents with them immediately. Additionally, parents can find support on how to handle bullying behavior among their children by clicking here, or by reading the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines by clicking here.