Cyberbullying linked to post-traumatic stress disorder for both victims and bullies, find researchers
Cyberbullying has now been linked to various types of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, both for victims and perpetrators. More than a third of cyber victims (35%), more than one in four (29.2%) of the cyberbullies, and a similar proportion (28.6%) of those who were both, scored above the threshold for clinically significant PTSD symptoms, found researchers who surveyed secondary school students. Based on their analysis, the research team suggests that asking about cyberbullying should become a routine part of children's mental health or psychological assessment. The study includes experts from the UK's Imperial College London and Edgware Community Hospital.
The prevalence of cyberbullying among teens is thought to be between 10% and 40%, which may pose specific risks because it can be done day and night, in various contexts, is rapid, anonymous, and reaches a wide audience, say the researchers. It has been suggested that there may be some overlap between traditional bullying and cyberbullying. To explore this further, and find out what the mental health impact of cyberbullying might be, the authors questioned 2,218 students, aged between 11 and 19, from four secondary schools in London about their experiences of bullying. The team used the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire to find out what type of bullying the teens had been involved with, how often this had happened, and for how long it had lasted. They screened for PTSD symptoms using the Children Revised Impact of Events Scale (CRIES), which has two dimensions: intrusive thoughts and avoidance behaviors. The study was approved by the Imperial College London Research Ethics Committee.
Of the 2,218 students, 46% reported a history of any kind of bullying: 17% as victims, 12% as perpetrators, and 4% as both victims and perpetrators. Around a third (34%) were of white ethnicity; two-thirds were of black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds. Just over half the teens were girls (55%). Most of the children (80%) had been born in the UK. An estimated 13% of the teens had been cyberbullied; 8.5% had bullied others online, and 4% had been both victim and perpetrator. Some 16% of the teens had been bullied in person, 12% had bullied others in person, and 6.5% had been both victim and perpetrator, says the study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
In the sample, cyberbullying involvement was less common than traditional bullying (25.46% versus 33.48%). “Involvement in traditional bullying (1 in 3 of the teens) was more common than involvement in cyberbullying (1 in 4),” the findings state. There was some overlap between both types of bullying, but ‘pure’ cyberbullies were less likely to also be traditional bullies. Half of those involved in a specific role in cyberbullying was also involved in the same role in traditional bullying: 52.2% of cyber victims were also traditional victims; 45.5% of cyber victims were also traditional bully-victims, and 48% of the cyberbullies were also traditional bullies.
The analysis shows that 38% of the cyberbullies were not involved in any form of traditional bullying, whereas only 10.4% of the cyberbully victims were not involved in some form of traditional bullying (mainly as traditional victims or traditional bully-victims, with just 19.5% as traditional bullies). Further, 26.7% of the cyber victims were not involved in traditional bullying, whereas 10.2% of the traditional victims were not involved in cyberbullying, says the study. “Despite cyberbullying being less frequent than traditional bullying, it is noteworthy than more than a third of the cyberbullies were not involved in traditional bullying, whereas a huge majority of the cyberbully-victims were involved in traditional bullying mainly as traditional victims or traditional bully-victims. This suggests that the anonymity provided to perpetrators online may constitute a new platform for bullying to occur, though this finding requires further study,” says the team.
Around 72% (1,516) of the teens completed the CRIES assessment. The results show that a significant proportion of those who were cyber victims, cyberbullies, or cyberbully-victims presented clinically significant PTSD symptoms. Further analysis suggests that cyber victims displayed significantly more PTSD symptoms than did cyberbullies, and they experienced more intrusive thoughts and avoidance behaviors. Cyberbullies also had significantly more PTSD symptoms than teens who were not involved in any form of bullying. “Cyberbullying, as a victim only or as a victim-perpetrator, seems to be associated with multiple types of PTSD symptoms. Cyber and traditional victimization significantly predicted intrusion and avoidance,” emphasize researchers.
According to the authors, this is an observational study, so it cannot establish cause and effect. The sample was representative of UK urban teens and the findings may not apply to other regions or countries, caution the researchers. However, the findings have important implications, they write. “Parents, teachers, pediatricians, general practitioners, and mental health professionals need to be aware of possible PTSD symptoms in young people involved in cyberbullying. Screening and early cost-effective treatments could be implemented,” says the team.