Cyberbullying Can Influence Child and Adolescent Self-Harm

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Two years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, cited these disturbing statistics, “in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009” (Office of the Surgeon General, 2021). Admittedly, although multiple factors are at play in terms of risk for depression, two pathways cited in the most recent Surgeon General’s Advisory (2023) were (1) social media and youth mental health and (2) cyberbullying.

Children and adolescents are in a state of flux and growth in a variety of ways: neurologically, hormonally, psychologically, and socially. Coming of age—moving from childhood and early adolescence into sexual and psychosocial maturation—can be a rocky path. As Dr. Murthy observed, today’s young people face challenges that are unique to the 21st century—those of the prominence of social media in their interactions with one another.

Across age groups, and more so with youth, social media offers an appealing way to quickly connect with others. The downside, particularly for young people, has been the bombarding impact of 24/7 social media influences on self-esteem and self-worth. The Pew Research Center cited these statistics for 2022: Up to 95 percent of young people ages 13 to 17 reported using a social media platform with almost one-third reporting that their use was “almost constantly” (Vogels & Watnick, 2023). Although many of the platforms require the age 13 to be the minimum age of use, nearly 40 percent of children ages 8 to 12 reported use of social media (Rideout et al., 2022).

Cyberbullying and Its Effects

Cyberbullying may consist of provoking fights online, being devious in getting personal information and then distributing it online, keeping one from joining online groups, frequently harassing the recipient with offensive information, and sexting (Kofoed and Staksrud, 2019).

There are those who have interpersonal difficulties, such as believing that when they are hurt, aggression is an appropriate response. In this context, they may justify their cyberbullying. There are also individuals who simply lack empathy and want to hurt others. Additional issues raised to explain cyberbullies’ behavior include dysfunctional families, poor problem-solving, and being bullied themselves. It is not uncommon for bullies to also be victims of bullying.

Bullying has been present since time immemorial. The difference now is that technology has advanced to where taunts, name-calling, disclosure of personal information, making false statements, and all other forms of hurtful comments can be communicated not only to the victim but to others as well. Moreover, once it is out on the internet, erasing it or limiting its appearance is very difficult, if possible at all.

Most adolescents are somewhat tolerant of receiving occasional taunts or name-calling, particularly if they are the only ones who are aware of it. However, a different situation emerges when such “attacking” behavior occurs via electronic means where a wide net of readers is cast. This can further contribute to the pain and suffering of the victim who feels exposed. If the targeted individual does not have the resilience or the necessary support to overcome the negative effects, the risk of self-harm may emerge (especially if they are already at risk).

Pew Report and Cyberbullying

In 2022, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 1,316 teens (ages 13 to 17) and found that almost half (46 percent) had experienced at least one instance of cyberbullying (Vogels, 2022). “Offensive name-calling” was the most common type, followed by “Spreading false rumors about them”; “Receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for”; “Constantly being asked where they are, what they’re doing, or who they’re with by someone other than a parent”; “Physical threats”; and “Having explicit images of them shared without their consent” (Vogels, 2022). These offenses were transmitted either online or on a cell phone.

The study also found that older females were more likely to experience cyberbullying than younger girls or boys. In addition, a large percentage of Black and Hispanic teens stated that bullying and online harassment were “a major problem for people their age.”

Self-Harm

Systematic literature reviews, as cited by the Surgeon General’s Advisory Report (2023) on social media and youth and mental health, point to social media platforms showing people engaged in self-injurious behaviors including acts such as asphyxiation. Researchers Dyson et al. noted in 2016 that such depictions are particularly harmful for youth suffering from mental health issues: They can normalize self-harm as well as provide a pathway for suicide pacts.

Self-Harm Essential Reads

How can targeted victims be protected from the adverse effects of cyberbullying? There really is no clear answer. Even if they do not view their social media or greatly restrict it, that will not necessarily deter the offender from continuing their cyberbullying. However, there are interventions that can reduce the harm to the victim. For some (typically younger victims), parental control and monitoring of the sources of communication can be helpful. Two of the most important factors for older youth are having a strong family and a positive status among peers (Farrington & Ttofi, 2019). Moreover, peers can dissuade the victim from believing the negative and harmful content that the perpetrator wrote. These authors also found that a strong community (including the school’s emphasis on safety) helped decrease victimization.

Clearly, there are interpersonal factors that affect victimization. Those with strong family involvement and a circle of supportive peers can offer support and dissuade the victim from believing the harmful content. In addition, school programs addressing bullying and cyberbullying behavior as well as the effects of such harassment can contribute to reducing victimization. Finally, for those who continue to experience distress, mental health intervention should be sought.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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